“He said, she said” cases: can you be convicted based on only the testimony of your accuser? answered by John Helms, a Dallas criminal defense lawyer.
In true “he said, she said” situations, I have had many clients ask me how they could be convicted of a crime when there is “no evidence” against them. What they mean is that there is no physical, video, audio, documentary, or other evidence to back up what the accuser says. The problem is that the accuser’s testimony under oath from the witness stand is “evidence.” So, as long as the accuser testifies at trial, there will be evidence against them. But is this enough to convict someone, asks John Helms Dallas criminal defense lawyer.
In criminal cases, the accused can only be convicted of a crime if the government proves every element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. The law does not say what kind of proof is necessary to meet this burden. In fact, the law says that a jury can convict someone based on the testimony of only one witness as long as the jury believes that witness beyond a reasonable doubt. This is known as the “one witness rule.” It means that, in theory, the testimony of only one witness can be enough to convict someone of a crime.
Common sense tells us, though, that even though it is theoretically possible under the law, it should be a rare situation when one witness’ testimony, with no other evidence to back it up, is enough to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt when the accused denies it. That is why we have a phrase like “he said, she said” to describe situations when someone should not be convicted—because it is common sense that someone normally should not be convicted of a crime just based on one person’s accusation.
True “he said, she said,” criminal cases most often occur when prosecutors have a policy of pursuing cases even when there is a good chance they will lose them. This is usually in domestic violence or child abuse cases. In both of these categories, there is often no other evidence of guilt besides the accuser’s testimony, and many district attorney’s offices believe it is so important to protect victims of these crimes that they have a policy of pursuing cases that might be too weak to prosecute otherwise.
Prosecutors who regularly handle these types of cases use various techniques to try to get the jury to convict the accused based only on the accuser’s testimony. One is that, in jury selection, they try to commit all potential jurors to follow the “one witness rule” and try to exclude potential jurors who have trouble with it. They will also suggest, without coming out and saying it, that the “one witness rule” means that jurors can vote to convict the accused if they believe the accuser more than the accused. In other words, they will try to invite the jury to decide which side they believe the most and to vote guilty or not guilty based on which side they believe.
For the accused, the danger of these tactics is that most people are used to deciding which side they believe more and forming an opinion based on that. That is what people do when they watch crime shows or even people disagreeing on a political issue. This means that the prosecutors will be asking people to do what they are used to doing and are comfortable doing, adds criminal attorney Helms.
But in a “he said, she said” situation, the law says that the accused can only be convicted if the jury believes the accuser beyond a reasonable doubt, not just more than the defendant. In other words, according to the law, the jury should find the defendant not guilty if they have any doubt that is reasonable, even if they strongly believe the accuser. So the law says that the jury must not simply weigh the accuser’s testimony against the accused’s. Rather, the jury must weigh ALL of the evidence against “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The defense lawyer’s job, therefore, is to teach the potential jurors, starting in jury selection, what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means, how it applies in the context of a “he said, she said” case, and why the “one witness rule” does not change what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means. To do this, I use charts that I have prepared and examples from real life. The criminal defense lawyer must then carry this theme throughout the trial, repeatedly hammering on it at every opportunity. Also, the defense lawyer must expose inconsistencies in the accuser’s testimony and show that the accuser has a motive to lie. These by themselves can be all the reasonable doubt that the jury needs if the defense attorney is skillful and persuasive.
There is always a risk that an accuser will be very believable, and in theory, a very believable accuser can be enough for a conviction. Therefore, even in a “he said, she said” situation, it is critical to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer with excellent trial skills defending you.
If you, a family member or someone you know has been charged with a crime or have been convicted and need help with an appeal in the Dallas area, contact Dallas criminal defense lawyer John Helms at (214) 666-8010 or fill out the online contact form. You can discuss your case, how the law may apply and your best legal options to protect your rights and freedom.