Monday, August 22, 2011

Definition of Witness: A Grammatical Misunderstanding

On 12 August 2011, the Indonesian Constitutional Court issued its decision concerning judicial review of Law No. 8 of 1981 on Criminal Procedural Law ("Criminal Procedural Law"). You can download the decision here. Under the decision, the Constitutional Court deemed that the definition of a Witness should be amended from "a person who can give testimony for the purpose of investigation, prosecution, and trial on a criminal case which is heard, seen and experienced by him/herself" to become "a person who can give testimony for the purpose of investigation, prosecution, and trial on a criminal case which is not always heard, seen and experienced by him/herself".

According to the Constitutional Court judges, the definition should be amended since based on grammatical interpretation, the term "is heard, seen and experienced by him/herself" refers specifically to the criminal case itself. As such, such definition will violate the rights of the defendant to bring witnesses that might support him in the trial process such as alibi witnesses that probably do not see, hear or experience the relevant criminal case (because the criminal case does not occur).

I have to say that this is an issue of simple grammatical misunderstanding and the solution provided by the Constitutional Court creates another problem. Grammatically, there are two ways to read the above clause: (i) the term "is heard, seen and experienced by him/herself" refers specifically to the actual criminal conduct; or (ii) the term "is heard, seen and experienced by him/herself" refers to the testimony/information given by the witness in relation to the case at hand. In cases where we use plain meaning technique to interpret the text of law, we must also rely in the principle that plain meaning approach can only be used when it would not lead to an absurd result. Surely, using the first interpretation will bring significant trouble in practice.

As a comparison, under the US Federal Code of Evidence, a witness may not testify to a matter unless evidence is introduced sufficient to support a finding that the witness has personal knowledge of such matter. This is common sense, a witness can only testify about things that he/she really knows. In line with that, I am certain that the second interpretation would fit better in interpreting the definition of witness under the Indonesian Criminal Procedural Law.

In my opinion, the solution of the Constitutional Court might create an issue concerning the competency of the witnesses. First, the fact that they don't see, hear or experience the criminal conduct by themselves does not necessarily mean that their testimony is always relevant to the case. This will open a chance for the defendant to bring any witnesses that can support him even when there is no merit of such testimony to the case, such as testimony on the character of the defendant. Trial process involves emotion and judges are not robots, and thus a good framing of the defendant is always helpful. Is this good or not? Further evaluation is needed but surely this will depend on our taste of morality and human rights.

Second, in worst case scenario, the generality of the wording used by the Constitutional Court may also be used by prosecutors and polices for using witnesses that do not see, hear or experience the criminal case against the defendant. This is surely absurd, but judging from the absurdity of the solution, I am not surprised if polices and prosecutors exploit this loophole. Time will tell.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Testimony of Dead People from Twitter: Valid Evidence?

I find this tragedy as a case with a very interesting legal feature. Basically, a boy who was driving recklessly caused the death of two of his classmates last saturday morning. How do we know about his reckless driving? Prior to their death, one of the victim shared her experience through Twitter, saying that the boy was entering a drag race with his friends as passengers! Then another victim re-tweeted the tweet, confirming the information about the boy's involvement in the drag race (I have to put a caveat here though, re-tweeting a tweet does not necessarily means that the re-tweeted tweet is true). From the news, I understand that there are two other survivors from this accident, which would be helpful as witnesses in the court. However, let us assume in this case that there is no evidence who can confirm the boy's reckless driving that night. Can we then use the written testimony of his dead friends in Twitter as the basis to punish him in the court?

Legally, this would be a challenge. Under Article 162 of Law No. 8 of 1981 on Criminal Procedural Law ("Criminal Procedural Law"), in case a witness who has provided his/her testimony to the investigator dies before attending the trial, his/her testimony can still be read in the court. If the testimony has been given under an oath, such testimony will be treated equally with a testimony given by a witness who attend the trial. If not, I would say that Article 161 (2) of the Criminal Procedural Law will be applicable, i.e. the testimony will not be considered as a valid evidence although the judge can use it as a supporting information in rendering his decision. In any case, if the minimum rule of two items of evidence cannot be satisfied in the court, such information will be useless.

In our case, however, the victims were already dead before they can say anything to the investigator. Thus, I doubt that their testimony can be considered at all. I also doubt that tweets can be treated as as a Letter Evidence (alat bukti surat), since it must be supported with or made under an oath. And even if it can, it will only work if it is used in conjunction with the information found from other evidence (which is none in our hypothetical case).

As much as I am sympathetic with the victims, I must say that I'm in agreement with the law and I would not support using informal written testimony of dead people as a valid evidence even though it might contain a grain of truth. Why? Simply because you cannot cross examine that kind of testimony and therefore it would be impossible to determine its accuracy. After all, everyone can say anything in their writings, including through Twitter, and we can't verify whether they are telling the truth without further examination.

I can only hope that justice will prevail in this case. Remember, under Indonesian Penal Code, causing death of other people due to negligence is a criminal act punishable by maximum 5 years prison. This is not something that you can get off by simply saying that you're sorry.

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Monday, August 08, 2011

A Second Anniversary That I Almost Forgot!

Oh dear, it seems that I almost forgot the second anniversary of this beloved blog! I've been busy with the preparation for my post graduate study at the University of Chicago Law School, e.g. completing all of my remaining corporate lawyer work prior to leave (so that I won't have any additional homework during my study), preparing my travel to and living needs in Chicago (getting US visa and securing an apartment lease), and pulling together the learning materials (the law school database was opened already in June and I must say that I am overwhelmed with the enormous data, very exciting!).

I hope that I can be more productive in this blog as soon as I have settled my live at Chicago. Stay tune folks.        

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