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The Importance Of Corroboration

cockpit instruments in a Beechcraft Baron aircraft
photo by Scott Thieman

I never pursued an instrument rating when I was briefly an active private pilot, but even basic training taught me to trust my most objective sources of information – my instruments – more than my own senses.

Anyone can become disoriented in clouds or haze. You may think you are flying straight and level, when in fact you are going in circles or descending toward disaster. When your senses disagree with your instruments, ignore your senses.

The same is true when trying to judge whether the story someone tells you is accurate and complete.

If we were all as good at detecting lies as we like to think we are, nobody would bother lying. But people lie all the time. In some lines of work – policing and journalism, for instance – getting lied to is just part of the job. It’s why journalists are taught that if your mother says she loves you, check it out. It’s all about corroboration.

Corroboration was very much in the news during the confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. After one woman, then a second, and finally a third attached their names to various allegations of sexual misconduct he allegedly committed in his youth, the question became how much corroboration – if any – was required, if he was “credibly” accused of such heinous behavior, to affect his chances at confirmation. At their final, dramatic hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, many observers described the original accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as credible. Opinions varied more widely about Kavanaugh’s emotional and emphatic denial.

For me, it brought to mind the admonition to trust the instruments. And the instruments in this case were the various investigators: the FBI when it was called in to try to interview parties Ford said were present when she was attacked, as well as the Judiciary Committee staff, and even the lawyers who were referred to Ford by the committee’s senior Democrat and others opposed to Kavanaugh’s nomination. If there was corroboration to be found, all of them had incentives to find it. They did not. They did find multiple witnesses, identified by Ford, who contradicted some aspects of the accuser’s account.

This does not mean that Ford was deliberately lying, or even that her story was necessarily false. But in my view it means that, more likely than not, nothing she described Kavanaugh as having done to her was actually done by him to her.

There is no need to re-litigate here the scope or time frame of the FBI investigation, or the timing and manner in which the allegations against Kavanaugh were brought to light. No minds are going to be changed. Neither will the fact that he was narrowly confirmed to his seat on the highest court on a near party-line vote. But I do think it is worth some reflection on the question of who or what to trust when making life-altering decisions, whether those decisions are in a courtroom, in Congress or in a cockpit.

At one extreme in the debate is President Trump, who stated at Kavanaugh’s ceremonial swearing-in on Oct. 9 that the new justice had been “proven innocent.” At the other extreme was Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Hawaii Democrat, who declared that women who make allegations of sexual assault “need to be believed” after Ford’s initial allegations but prior to her testimony.

Full exoneration seldom comes any sooner than history provides it. Former Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan famously asked where to go to get his reputation back after he was acquitted of working with mobsters on a subway tunnel project. The indictment by Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola had forced Donovan out of President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet.

Exoneration never came for police officer Harry Crist Jr. He was one of several police officers that 15-year-old Tawana Brawley accused of kidnapping, raping and abusing her over a four-day period in 1987. She was found in a plastic garbage bag, smeared with dog feces. Bill Cosby offered a $25,000 reward for information about her case. Crist killed himself when his girlfriend ended their relationship after the charges were made.

Steven Pagones, then a Dutchess County prosecutor, questioned Brawley’s story. Her team of advisers – the Rev. Al Sharpton (who first became a household name thanks to this case) and attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason – subsequently accused Pagones of being one of Brawley’s attackers. The case collapsed, however, and a state special grand jury determined that Brawley had fabricated her tale. Pagones later won defamation judgments against Brawley and her legal team. Still, his name remains indelibly linked to her case.

Around the same time as the Brawley case, the United States was gripped by a wave of allegations of massive and monstrous sexual abuse of children at day care centers from coast to coast. Prosecutor after prosecutor found probable cause to bring charges. On the theory that small children would never lie about such things, but required special handling for their own protection, judges allowed leading and suggestive questions, sometimes coaxing the answers they expected to receive from the children themselves. Convictions resulted, even in the near-total absence of corroborating evidence. Many of those convictions have since been overturned. And in the two decades since this wave of mass hysteria and prosecutorial opportunism passed, no similar cases have arisen anywhere in the country.

History endlessly teaches us the same lesson. From the Salem witch trials to the World War I paranoia that led to the passage of the Espionage Act to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and, most dreadfully, to the wrongful convictions and the torture and lynching of thousands of African-Americans accused of sexually assaulting white women in the Jim Crow era, we should have learned by now not to blindly trust what our prejudices tell us we must believe.

If sexual assault allegations were never wrongly leveled, or if victims never incorrectly identified their attackers, we would never have heard of the Duke lacrosse players. Or the Innocence Project.

There will, of course, be times when the only evidence to consider will be the diametrically opposed statements of the accused and his or her accuser. Even then, some corroborating information – a pattern of behavior, multiple similar accusations, or at least a photo or witness who puts the two people together in the same place – might help us discern the truth. We are entitled to draw some conclusions about the total lack of such corroboration. It isn’t exoneration, exactly, but it is the best way to keep from committing grave injustice as a result of getting lost in the clouds of emotion.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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