General Question

rebbel's avatar

"rebbel used to be in a gang and was suspected of burglary. Withdrawn, your Honor." Why are lawyers permitted to say things like that?

Asked by rebbel (31549points) June 19th, 2011

In trials you hear these things being said.
The lawyer states that a witness or a suspect has done something earlier in life that could possible contradict his/her statement or shows that he/she is not reliable.
The lawyer knows that he isn’t allowed to do that but he does it anyway.
He/she just adds that line: ”Withdrawn, your Honor.
Now the people in the jury also know about the fact that wasn’t supposed to be brought in to the public with the possible (probable?) danger that they will let that fact weight in their decision.
Why does the law not prevent lawyers from doing this?
Or does the law do it?
Are there maybe penalties that I am not aware off?

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15 Answers

Thammuz's avatar

The problem is not why they can say it, It’s why they say it in the first place.

They say that kind of stuff because your trials are by jury, and therefore convincing a bunch of uninformed morons of what you want is what lawyers end up going for.

You don’t need to bring that stuff up to the judge, because the judge has access to legal documents and rep sheets and would already know if he cared to know, so the obvious point is to discredit the witness/defendant/victim in the eyes of the jury.

Why are they allowed to say it? Because apparently you can’t sue people for slander in your country. If you could then lawyers would have to be very careful about that, since everything said in a court of law is recorded for future reference.

gorillapaws's avatar

@rebbel Are you basing this on real life or on TV/Movie court scenes? I’d be surprised if this is a common tactic in real life (but I’m no lawyer, so what do I know). I would think it could theoretically result in a mistrial if the information was “leaked” to the jury was critical to the outcome of the case.

KatawaGrey's avatar

If I understand correctly, it’s because no one is legally allowed to mention it. For example, in the jury room, the jury members cannot actually talk about those things which were said and then withdrawn or stricken from the record. To do so is illegal.

Edit to add: This is my understanding for the American system. I do not know about how it is where you live. Am I remembering correctly that you live in Norway?

rebbel's avatar

@gorillapaws It is based on lots of tv court scenes (this evening on Law & Order for example) but i believe i also saw it in the Peterson case(author) documentary (not sure though).
I assume that tv shows base their scripts on real life situations and i thought that this withdrawn phenomenon would be a thing that happens also in real life.

rebbel's avatar

@KatawaGrey I am talking about the American system too.
And you are close, it is the Netherlands :-)

WasCy's avatar

In the first place, trials are conducted without a script by humans in front of a live human audience and are “legal combat” between opposing attorneys. So occasionally one attorney, trying to think on his feet and react quickly to a statement that another attorney or witness has made, will make an “inappropriate” statement in the heat of the moment. It’s not (or should not be) a planned event. If it appears to be, or even if it just happens extemporaneously in the heat of the moment after the judge has warned the attorney, then sanctions may apply, up to and including a mistrial. In some cases when the judge has forewarned the parties involved not to raise the issue that “rebbel was in a gang”, then the result may be an immediate mistrial, and a contempt citation for the individual attorney.

YARNLADY's avatar

The trials I have seen in real life are nothing like the ones you see on TV.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Usually they say it to get it out there. The opposing counsel generally says “Objection” and the judge rules as to whether or not the question or the evidence is prejudicial. If he allows it, it stays in the court records, if he sustains the objection, then the statement is struck out of the court transcript and the jury is directed to ignore the statement. If the statement is found to be prejudicial then a mistrial can be declared, and the trial starts over with a new jury, perhaps in a new location.

The reason why they say it is to get information heard by the jury that they can’t otherwise bring up during the trial. It colors the jury’s perspective, even if they can’t consider the information as evidence as directly applicable to the case.

aprilsimnel's avatar

@BarnacleBill – 2nd paragraph. Yes. Exactly why.

WasCy's avatar

In the particular example you use, a real attorney using a statement as prejudicial (and as unsupported) as that would very likely face strong and immediate censure from the judge.

That is, “was suspected of” is simply inflammatory – an allegation with no fact behind it, and in fact meaningless absent a conviction based on the earlier suspicion. What’s more likely is that “rebbel was a gang member and was convicted for burglary” (and I’m very disappointed in you, @rebbel), if that were the case. And even then, a competent attorney would know in advance (having asked the judge), “May I introduce this evidence about the defendant’s prior history?”. Unless it’s pertinent (say, you’re on trial for a similar burglary), then the judge would more than likely disallow it.

However, if you are testifying and you raise the issue, such as, “I was wrongly convicted of burglary several years ago,” then the prosecutor would have free rein to explore and attempt to rebut your statements.

Dominic's avatar

The law does forbid it. A lawyer doing that risks a mistrial or worse: making the judge angry. You don’t like judges when they’re angry.

Thammuz's avatar

@Dominic Thank you! I was starting to lose hope in humanity.

iamthemob's avatar

@WasCy pretty much has it down.

I would say in the example you’re given, the response would be quick and harsh. The way it’s phrased, there’s not even a question – the lawyer is testifying as to the facts.

throssog's avatar

It is a technique called “How do you un-ring a bell?” It is used frequently , as frequently as a Judge will permit it to be. Federal prosecutors are quite prone to its use.
Juries are, thereafter instructed to disregard or ignore the “ringing” Ha!
Juries know so little of on what and how they may rule and have almost no knowledge of Jury Nullification, i.e., a jury declining to convict because they (as the community) don’t think this should be against the law or that the penalty is too great, etc.
Lawyers are supposed to be servants of the law…but they only serve their egos and their pocket books – with some few exceptions.

rebbel's avatar

@throssog Thanks. I like that un-ring a bell!

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