Clarence Darrow and William Jenning Bryant
What is a reductio ad absurdum cross-examination? It is the process of refuting a claim on the grounds that it is absurd. If the proposition is accepted then there will be a patently untenable result.
In the past few posts, we have been focusing upon the first impeachment wrecking crew—Unreliability of the Witness’s Observation (Impeaching a Biased Witness and Cross-Examining a Child). Now, we move on to the second impeachment wrecking crew—The Faulty Report. The concept here is that the report given by the witness is improbable because it is absurd.
Cross-examination to show the witness’s account is improbable is supported by Evidence Rule 401. Test for Relevant evidence, which states, “Evidence is relevant if:
(a) it has any tendency to make the existence of any fact more or less probable than it would be without the evidence; and
(b) the fact is of consequence in determining the action.
All relevant evidence is admissible, except . . .”
There are three techniques you can employ to show the report is improbable:
1. Reduction to the Absurd Technique
2. Common Sense Technique
3. Contradictory Conduct Technique
The 1925 Scopes trial provides an excellent illustration of the Reduction to the Absurd Technique. Here is a brief summary of the facts of the case and the lawyers involved.
• The trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee
• John Scopes was accused of teaching evolution in violation of state statute
• William Jennings Bryan – former candidate for President and head of the fundamentalist movement becomes co-counsel for the prosecution
• Clarence Darrow signs on as co-counsel for defense
• The trial drew such a crowd that they thought the courtroom floor would collapse and they moved the players outside as pictured below.
A book “Inherit the Wind” was written about the trial and it was later made into a movie by the same name. The cross-examination in the movie is based on the trial transcript.
Watch as Darrow cross-examines Bryan.
The jury deliberated 9 minutes and found Scopes guilty. The court levied an hundred dollar fine on Scopes. Bryan died five days later.