What's your alibi?
February 10, 2012
For a legal thriller writer the issue of an accused’s alibi is one of the most fertile and fun things in his arsenal of tricks.
Since law enforcement officials often take weeks or months to develop a lead on a case, it is not unusual for a person to be charged with a crime that occurred some time in the past.
Suppose a detective shows up at your door and wants to know what you were doing on the night of October 14, 2011. Could you account for your whereabouts? Most people wouldn’t have a clue where they were that evening unless that was some sort of special occasion for them, a birthday, an anniversary.
Does this inability of the accused to provide an alibi mean he is guilty? If so, we are all in trouble.
What if the accused knows where he was, but doesn’t want to tell? Maybe he was up to no good somewhere, but wasn’t at the crime scene where the police seek to place him.
What if by some fluke the accused does know where he was that night, but can’t prove it. Or to put it in in fancy legal jargon, what if he can’t corroborate his alibi? Have you ever tried to find a receipt for an item you bought six months before at Wal-Mart? Does the absence of the receipt mean you didn’t buy it there? That’s what the clerk at customer service will tell you. No piece of paper to back up your story looks suspicious to law enforcement officials if they have already built a case against you.
A lot of innocent people have been convicted because they couldn’t prove where they were on the night of a crime.
That’s great stuff for a novel.
This brings us to one of the most interesting people in any crime novel: the alibi witness.
In my neck of the woods, East Texas, there is a famous saying from a great lawyer of a previous generation who has now gone on to his eternal reward. He often said, “Every mother has a constitutional right to take the witness stand and lie for her child.” It doesn’t matter what day it was, what time it was, her son was at home with her when the crime happened.
Most jurors understand the rule at play in this situation, nod when the mother takes the stand, listen attentively, and then immediately forget anything she says. To them, because she is the accused’s mother her testimony lacks credibility. It seems like a cruel rule, doesn’t it? What if the kid really was at home?
The stickier situation is when the alibi witness is a stranger to the accused, a dis-interested third party. This is the sort of person one would least expect of fabricating an alibi, the sort of person who is the silver bullet in the state’s case.
A creative prosecutor might decide to dig deeper into that person’s story.
“How is it that you are able to remember this particular night?” the DA asked.
“I just do,” the alibi witness, Ms. Jones, said.
“Do you remember what day of the week it was?”
“I think it was a Wednesday,” Ms. Jones said.
“Aren’t you a church-going person, Ms. Jones?”
“I surely am,” she said.
“Don’t you have church choir practice on Wednesday nights?”
“Every Wednesday for the last twenty years,” she said.
“So you would have been in church that night, wouldn’t you?”
Ms. Jones pauses while she thinks about it. “Maybe it wasn’t a Wednesday,” she said.
You get the point.
Does your character need an alibi? If so, he may be up a creek without a paddle.