The dynamics of examining witnesses have changed greatly during the evolution of the modern criminal justice system, but some things never change. The neglect of witnesses to read their previous statements before giving testimony is a common contributing factor in the success of cross-examination, and this has been true for centuries.
In April of 1633, when Galileo was summoned before the Inquisition, he faced some difficulties not confronted by the modern defendant. He had no lawyer, he had no right to remain silent, and he stood in danger of being tortured if the Inquisitors didn’t like what he said. Despite the differences, Galileo’s performance before the Inquisition has lessons for modern witnesses.
Years earlier Galileo had gotten into trouble with the Inquisition for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun. In that prior proceeding, he had been ordered not to teach Copernicus’ theory that the earth revolved around the sun as a fact. He was told that he could, however, teach it “suppositionally” as an interesting theory. He did some lobbying of the Pope and got permission to print a book on Copernican theory with the proviso that he had to make it clear that the sun really revolved around the earth. The book was supposed to be printed in Rome, and it was supposed to be vetted by the authorities in Rome. He printed it in Florence, and the authorities in Rome never saw the book until after it was printed.
His “Dialogue on the Two Great World Systems” is a classic of ground-breaking science, but it was also a prime example of the old proverb “Given an inch, some people want to take a mile.” Despite his pleas of ill health, he was ordered to appear before the Inquisition in Rome. Remarkably, we have a transcript of his testimony before the Inquisition.
In an exchange which began like a cross between a police interrogation and a prosecutorial cross-examination, Galileo did what many criminal defendants do today. He dug a hole for himself with his tongue. What follows is an extreme abridgment of Galileo’s testimony highlighting his missteps. We have recast the questions to conform with modern procedure, but the answers come straight from the transcript.
Q: If you were shown a copy of the “Dialogue” would you be able to recognize it?
A: I hope so. I hope that if the book is shown to me I shall recognize it.