The Ponderosa High School Foundation held its eighth annual Spring Banquet on March 22, with its featured speaker being one of the lawyers who helped defend O.J. Simpson during his murder trial.
Over 100 people attended the event, including teachers, parents, administrators, students, and community members. Co-presidents of the event were Dave Sargent and Jennifer Sands. Dinner was served by students in the Key Club and Interact Club with entertainment provided by the Ponderosa Chamber Choir.
The banquet raised a total of $6,500 for projects that will be used to enhance the education of students. Past projects have included support for music and science programs, the school newspaper, and additional resources for the library. In addition, at least one $1,000 scholarship is provided to a student who plans to become a teacher.
The main speaker was law professor Gerald F. Uelmen who currently teaches at Santa Clara University School of Law. He previously taught at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. While there he participated in the defense of Daniel Ellsberg in the Pentagon Papers trial. He also served in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, prosecuting organized crime cases. In 1994-95, he served on the defense team for O.J. Simpson.
Uelmen began by saying that while he’s been a law professor for 43 years, he’s always kept one foot in the courtroom by maintaining an active part-time criminal defense practice on the side.
He then went on to ask the question if trials are about the pursuit of truth or about certainty, saying there are gray areas in the law. He said trials result in contrasting versions of what happened with prosecutors and the defense lawyers required to relentlessly pursue their version of events. The jury’s verdict is either guilty or not guilty, he said, but that doesn’t necessarily establish the truth of each’s side’s version. What we seek in a trial, he said, is an acceptable level of certainty not a declaration of where the truth lies.
Uelmen said part of the reason we can’t know the entire truth is because there are certain boundaries that civilized societies erect. Boundaries that respect the right of the accused to be silent and respect for privileged communications between spouses or between an attorney and his client.
“Thus if we speak as a trial as a search for truth, we have to recognize that it is affected by restraints,” he said. “It’s better to say that the search for truth has a different meaning in the context of a trial where there is a contest between two versions of the facts and that either version may coincide with reality. The jury chooses between competing versions. The jury does not define the truth … Thus, it’s more accurate to describe a trial as a search for certainty, not truth.”
Uelmen went on to say that the differing levels of certainty in civil and criminal trials is why O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his criminal trial and guilty in his civil trial. A criminal trial presumes someone is innocent, he noted, but that is not the case in a civil trial where the preponderance of evidence establishes the outcome.
The law professor said he’s never defended a guilty client because he’s never judged their guilt or innocence. That role belongs to someone else, he said. “My role is to defend my client’s version of events.” However, he said no attorney can present knowingly perjured testimony or hide or suppress evidence. Nor can they assist a client they know is guilty.
Uelmen said Simpson spent $4 million dollars on his defense and that allowed him to hire the best investigators and defense team. “Too often the system denies the indigent the resources needed to mount a vigorous defense,” he said.
Uelmen maintains that DNA evidence reveals that some people are wrongly convicted of crimes. A program he is associated with called the Innocence Project uses DNA evidence to try and overturn wrongful convictions. He said nationally there have been 303 DNA exonerations since 1989. In 18 of those cases, clients were on death row. He said almost all the cases involved indigent individuals.
As a law instructor, Uelmen said he teaches students that things may not always be as they appear. But that is not to deny the existence of objective truth or deny the appeal of objective truth, he offered. He said a trial’s adversary system is not about a revelation of the truth but rather the pursuit of truth and the jury’s verdict is not necessarily the end of that pursuit.
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