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“I didn’t know truth had a gender”

Wednesday, December 2, 2009
posted by Rita Handrich

female witnessWe figured when we did our post a few months ago on how hard it is to be a woman that we wouldn’t see more news like that so quickly. We were wrong. It happens. This time two more dings on women as witnesses and this time, it’s overtly about gender and accuracy in testifying. That is, if you’re a woman witness in court, you are likely unreliable, emotional and prone to tearfulness on the stand.

Deep breath. Here we go (again). A 69 year old male judge in Ottawa, Canada dismissed the testimony of the Ottawa mayor since she was commuting to Toronto and “leaving her husband and child in Ottawa”. The mayor’s response: “I didn’t know truth had a gender or a family.” There has been an outcry from various groups over the unfairness of this judicial ruling and comments that a male politician would not have been subject to the same thought processes.

But that’s Canada. Surely the same things wouldn’t happen here! Enter a law student from Indiana University School of Law doing research on Westlaw.

“I was researching cross-examination tactics, and I happened upon an American Jurisprudence Trials article entitled “Cross-examination of Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s Witnesses” (Westlaw citation is 6 AMJUR TRIALS 201):

(Keep in mind this from a section titled “Particular Witnesses” and the “particular witnesses” covered are children, the “aged” and women)

§ 45. Women

Women, of all types of witness, show the widest range of personality traits while on the stand, because they are usually much more emotional than men, and less inclined to observe and to relate occurrences on the basis of intellectual impressions alone. Paradoxically, most women are less inclined to exaggerate than are certain types of men, and are much more observant of minute details than are most men. As a rule, it can generally be said that women do not make strong witnesses on questions involving technical or factual matters, but make excellent witnesses on those matters involving close observation.” (see more at the URL cited earlier).

The law student involved contacted Westlaw who apparently stated they had chosen to remove the entire section. So maybe we have good news and bad news here: the bad news is that these sorts of biases obviously remain. The good news is that sometimes we can do something about bad information that is still out there.

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