Evidence is very important in a courtroom, and I try never to rely on evidence when engaging in evangelistic apologetics.
In the Summer of 1998, I was assigned to the Career Offender Robbery Burglary Apprehension (COBRA) team, at the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Put that on a business card! By the time I became part of the team, the team’s primary responsibility and areas of expertise were criminal street gangs and juvenile-related crime. I thoroughly enjoyed my career in law enforcement. I probably enjoyed no time more than the years I spent with a great group of guys, on the COBRA team.
Summer nights in Santa Clarita, like in most places around the country, were the most active times for gang and juvenile activity. My team would park our vehicles a couple of nights a week and hop on mountain bikes. It was amazing how up close and personal we could get on our bikes with people engaged in criminal activity, before it dawned on them we were cops. We issued lots of citations, made lots of arrests, and had a great time doing it.
Almost Hit By a Drunk Driver
A downside to working Bike Patrol was that you didn’t have a two-ton patrol car for cover, concealment, and other means of protection. A mountain bike has never won a fight with a moving vehicle. And they’re pretty hard to hide behind if the lead starts flying.
One night our team was patrolling the Southwest side of town. We decided to take a ride through a mobile home park known for a resident population that included gang members, probationers, parolees, and other folks you might not invite to your daughter’s piano recital. As we rode our bikes down the street outside the mobile harm park, we heard the unmistakeable sound of a car engine behind us.
Instinctively, we turned our heads to see what was coming up behind us. It was an older model muscle car. Instead of slowing down, the driver hit the accelerator, as evidenced by the sound of his opening carburetor. Not only did he accelerate, but he was also driving on the wrong side of the road–our side of the road.
The street was lit. There was no doubt in our minds that the driver could see us.
All of us made various evasive maneuvers, including, for some, hopping of our bikes, to avoid getting hit by the car.
“STOP YOUR CAR!”
As the vehicle passed us, I yelled, “STOP YOUR CAR!”
Again, it was dark. It was late at night. Other than the car’s engine, there were no other sounds on the street. My voice, which tends to carry well, got the driver’s attention. And, even though we couldn’t catch him on our bikes if we tried, the driver pulled to the side of the road and stopped his car.
Our team surrounded the car. None of us were happy and we conveyed our displeasure to the driver and his passenger. They quickly got the message.
I could smell the odor of burnt marijuana emanating from the car. The driver showed visible signs and symptoms of marijuana intoxication. After series of failed standardized field sobriety tests, I put the habeas grabbus on the driver and arrested him for driving while under the influence of marijuana. I thought of also citing him for operating a brain without a license, but there was no vehicle code section for that.
Each night we worked Bike Patrol, one of the team members drove what we called a “chase car.” Needless to say, we didn’t ride any bicycles-built-for-two and needed the means to transport arrestees, without having to bother regular patrol units, if we could avoid it. We got a hold of our chase car on the radio who would transport our suspect to the station.
The Jury Trial
A few months later, I received a subpoena to appear in court for a jury trial. The defendant was the young man who had the misfortune of driving while intoxicated and almost hitting a group of deputy sheriffs on bikes. While it wasn’t unusual to receive subpoenas for DUI cases, I was a little surprised to get this one. After all, there were five available eyewitnesses for the prosecution–all deputy sheriffs, and just one witness for the defense–the driver’s equally stoned passenger.
If memory serves me right, the defendant submitted to a urine test, which came back positive for THC, the intoxicant in marijuana. I was a certified and court-recognized drug recognition expert (DRE) who had testified many times in DUI and other drug-related cases. What defense could this kid’s attorney possibly present?
It was the day of the trial and the jury had been paneled. As always, the prosecution would be first to present its case. I was slated to be the prosecution’s only witness. I took the stand and testified as to what I saw, smelled, heard, and did.
It was now the defense attorney’s opportunity to cross-examine me.
The Defense’s “Gotcha!” Moment
I remember the defense attorney being a smug and arrogant fellow. He wasn’t one of the defense attorney’s who regularly appeared in our local courthouse. I knew most of the regular defense attorney’s, both public and private, on a first name basis. Since I made quite a few arrests, I spent a good deal of time in court.
I was intentional about establishing a good rapport with defense attorneys. The reason was two-fold: to love my neighbor and adversaries, and to exercise good tactics. You should have seen the look on some of the defendants’ faces when I walked up to their attorneys with a smile on my face, shook their hands, and asked them about life and family. It left some defendants wondering whose side their attorneys were on–theirs or mine. I was all right with that. The really good attorneys knew what I was doing. They were all right with it, too. It was all part of the game of chess we played–a game that started before the bailiff barked, “All rise!”
But I didn’t have a rapport with this defense attorney. I knew nothing about him. With him, the game of chess didn’t begin until I took the stand.
The defense attorney asked me the usual line of questions to start his cross-examination. He asked me about the time of day, weather conditions, how well the street was lit, his client’s demeanor, the standardized field sobriety tests, and so on.
I looked at the clock and saw that it was getting late in the day. My hope is that the case would go to the jury before day’s end so that I wouldn’t have to come back to court tomorrow. I had other cases to work and another day of “hurry up and wait” at the courthouse would be inconvenient. Jurors don’t like to be inconvenienced, either. A cranky jury can go either way in their decision-making.
“Your honor, I have a couple of photos I would like to show the witness. May I approach?”
The defense attorney showed the photos to the assistant district attorney before moving from behind the tables and approaching me at the witness stand.
“Your honor, I have here photos of the street where Deputy Miano stopped my client.”
The defense attorney placed the photos on the wooden rail of the witness stand, in front of me.
“Deputy Miano, is this the general area where you stopped my client?”
I quietly looked at the photos for a few moments.
“Yes, it is.”
“Deputy Miano, you wrote in your report and you’ve testified here, under oath, that the street was lit by street lights.”
“Where are the street lights in these photos, Deputy Miano?”
I looked at the photos again. There were no street lights. “That’s not possible.” I thought to myself. “I’ve been on that street hundreds of times. I know there are street lights on that road.”
I was careful about how I answered the defense attorney’s question.
“I do not see any street lights in these photos.”
“So, contrary to your report and your testimony, there are no street lights on the street.”
“That’s not what I said. I said there are no street lights in these photos.”
The defense attorney smiled, picked up the pictures from the bench, and walked back to the defense table. His client was smiling, too.
It was at this point the judge determined that we were done for the day. He gave the jury standard instructions about not discussing the case outside of the proceedings and told them what time to return the next day.
“This court is in recess until 9:00 AM tomorrow morning.”
The defense had its “gotcha” moment. The jury went home thinking I either erred or lied on my report and in my testimony. At the time, polls indicated that some 50% of jurors believed police officers regularly lied on the stand.
It Came Down to a Polaroid
My partner, Deputy John Howard, and I made our way to the assistant district attorney.
“What happened?” the D.A. asked me.
“I know there are lights on that street!” I insisted. “John and I will go back out there, now. I’ll see you in the morning.”
John and I drove to the street. As we turned off of Wiley Canyon Road onto Wabuska Street (the scene of the crime), to what should our wondering eyes should appear? Street lights.
John and I looked at each other and smiled. We immediately knew what the defense attorney had done. He had taken pictures at such an angle as to obscure the street lights behind the full grown trees that lined the streets.
We looked forward to getting back to court. Tomorrow morning, I would have a gotcha moment of my own.
When I got to court the next day, I alerted the prosecutor to what we had discovered and told him what I wanted to do. He liked the idea.
“All rise. Court is now in session.”
The judge instructed me to retake the stand. Motioning to the defense attorney, the judge said, “Your witness, counselor.”
The defense attorney, already smiling, walked toward me with his pictures in hand. I glanced at the jury. They weren’t smiling.
“Deputy Miano, I would like to recall your attention to the photos I showed you yesterday,” he said as he somewhat dramatically placed the photos in front of me. “Again, I ask you, where are the street lights?”
“There are no street lights in your photos. But there are street lights in mine.” I said.
I reached into my suit jacket pocket and removed a couple of Polaroid photos. I smiled. The defense attorney’s smile was gone.
“Your honor, my partner and I went out to Wabuska Street yesterday. There are street lights on the street, as these pictures show. The defense’s photos were taken at an angle that hid the street lights behind the trees.”
“I object, your honor!” The defense attorney barked.
The judge was now smiling. “You’re kidding, right? Objection overruled.”
I looked at the jurors who were discreetly and quietly talking amongst themselves. They knew who was lying, and it wasn’t me.
After a moment or two, the judge broke the silence by suggesting that the defense attorney talk to the district attorney to see if there might still be some kind of offer for his client. The defense attorney sheepishly agreed. His client? Well, his head was down and slowly shaking from side to side.
The two attorneys briefly conferred and then the defense attorney whispered into his client’s ear. His client nodded his head.
“Your honor, we have reached an agreement with the prosecution on this case,” the defense attorney explained.
The judge made sure the district attorney was in agreement.
The judge smiled and turned his attention to the jury. He explained to them what was happening, thanked them for their service, and dismissed them.
“Deputy Miano, you may step down,” the judge said with a smile.
John and I made the short walk to the station, looking forward to telling the rest of the team what happened.
Apologetics: Why I Never Rely on Evidence
Considering the title of this article, you might be wondering why I chose the above story to illustrate my point. After all, didn’t evidence in the case save the day?
Yes, the case turned on a piece of evidence–a polaroid picture.
However, had John and I not had the presence of mind to go back to the scene, if we had simply accept the defense attorney’s assertion that I blew it and that there were no street lights on the street, the jury would have likely surmised that the oversight on my part was an intentional attempt to deceive.
With that in mind, the jury would have likely ignored all of the evidence that pointed to the defendant’s guilt. They would have questioned the credibility of the evidence I collected and reported. As a result, they could have rendered a verdict of “not guilty” because they could not determine the defendant’s guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Even though the defendant was as guilty as his marijuana joint that night was probably long, the jury might have misinterpreted or ignored the evidence and let a guilty man go free. They would have done so based on the false evidence presented by the defense attorney–manipulated photos intended to hide the real presence of street lights. The jury would have believed a lie based on the evidence.
But what happened?
Better evidence was presented. And, in an epic moment probably remembered only by the very few people involved (if even by most of them), the jury changed its mind. I was no longer seen as a lying cop and the defense attorney was no longer seen as a noble advocate. I was back to being the good guy and the defense attorney, well…
But what if after the defense attorney’s “gotcha” moment, which was followed by my “gotcha” moment, the defense attorney responded with evidence that none of the street lights were working that night. Oh-oh. Another reversal of fortune.
So, what if in response my partner and I discover that all but one of the street lights were out–the one under which the defendant stopped and parked his car. And away we go, again!
Are you seeing it yet?
If you’re thinking, “He with the most convincing evidence wins,” you might understand what can happen in a courtroom filled with human beings. In a human courtroom, evidence can convict a guilty person, it can exonerate an innocent person, it can convict and innocent person, and it can exonerate a guilty person.
In reality, it’s not the evidence that convicts or exonerates an accused person. It’s how that evidence is interpreted. It’s whether or not the evidence is deemed credible and believed.
And it’s one of the reasons I don’t rely on evidence when engaged in evangelistic apologetic conversations.
The reason I don’t rely on evidence is not because I’m afraid of losing arguments. The reason I don’t rely on evidence is because doing so puts the person with whom I am speaking in the wrong position, in the sidewalk or campus, or abortuary courtrooms.
To Whom is Evidence Presented?
I was out crosswalking the other day, when a car caught my eye as it drove through the intersection. The driver gave me a long look. He drove a short distance down the road when he hit the breaks hard, as evidenced by the pronounced tipping of the car’s front end. He made a U-turn at an unusual spot. I watched as he drove into and through the gas station parking lot across the street. He quickly exited and cut across all lanes of traffic so he could pull into the parking lot behind me.
He seemed determined to talk to me. His name was Danny.
Danny, who appeared in his early 20s, exited his car wearing only a sweatshirt, shorts, and tennis shoes without socks. Did I mention it was in the mid-20s?
“I see you out here all the time. I just had to stop to talk to you. What do you talk to people about?” Danny asked.
I learned that Danny is a former Roman Catholic whose divorced parents bounced him back and forth between a Catholic church and a Baptist church. A few years ago, he drifted toward skepticism.
I asked Danny what led him down that path. “I guess it’s because no one can know for sure. There’s just not enough evidence,” he answered.
I explained to Danny that evidence is presented to a judge in a courtroom.
“In all my years in law enforcement, I never saw evidence presented to a defendant in a courtroom with him deciding his own innocence or guilt,” I explained. “Danny, in God’s courtroom, you’re the defendant, not the judge. And He already has all the evidence He needs to convict you and sentence you to death.”
This led to a wonderful, detailed, friendly gospel conversation. I’m confident Danny’s skepticism, unlike the ice upon which we stood, was melted by the heat of God’s truth. May God melt Danny’s heart by the warmth of the gospel.
Evidence is presented to a judge in a courtroom. You may think it’s presented to the jury, but it’s not.
The jury only sees that physical evidence, which the judge deems admissible. During proceedings, a judge can order a jury to ignore witness testimony and have it stricken from the record if he deems it to be inadmissible. While a jury hears and weighs the veracity of evidence, ultimately evidence is presented to the judge.
The judge, not the jury, is the final authority in a courtroom. Though it’s rare, a judge can overturn or vacate a jury’s decision by issuing what’s called a “judgment notwithstanding the verdict” (aka: “non obstante veredicto,” or “JNOV”). A JNOV “is an order by a judge after a jury has returned its verdict. The judge can overturn the jury’s verdict if he or she feels it cannot reasonably be supported by the evidence or if it contradicts itself.”
The judge can determine that it doesn’t matter what the jury believes regarding the evidence presented, if he determines that what the jury is believing isn’t true.
God the Judge Is Not on Trial
As I explained to Danny on that cold street corner and as I’ve explained to many others over the years, God is not on trial. The unbeliever is. God, the Supreme Judge of the Universe–the only Omniscient, Omnipresent, Omnipotent Creator–has already weighed the evidence against every unbeliever (Jeremiah 17:9-10; Daniel 5:27; Romans 3:23). He has already determined their guilt (Exodus 20:7; Proverbs 11:21; 16:5; 19:5). And His wrath abides upon them (John 3:36).
The unbeliever is not waiting for his day in court. He is waiting to be sentenced. The unbeliever who thinks he will one-day stand before God and defend himself, or who thinks he will put God in the witness stand to prove His existence, works, and authority, for one, has a fool for a client (Proverbs 10:23; 12:15; Romans 1:21-22). And, like Judas, he will wish he had never been born (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21).
Every human being knows that God exists. Some simply suppress this truth by their unrighteousness.
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Romans 1:18-25).
Since God is not on trial, is never on trial, and will never be on trial, Christians should not try to put him on trial by playing God’s defense attorney in the defendant sinner’s blasphemous courtroom.
The Benevolent Prosecutor
Christian: in the realm of evangelistic apologetics, you are not an unnecessary and meaningless defense attorney who must present evidence to appease or convince a guilty criminal (a sinner) that the Judge exists and the Judge is in charge. You are, in a sense, a benevolent prosecutor. The unbelieving person in front of you is the one on trial. Never forget that. You show prosecutorial benevolence by reminding or convincing the unbeliever of how guilty he is before God and that he has no case–no defense. You do so with a heart that does not want to see the person in front of you sentenced to eternity in hell. You plead with him to come to his senses, to admit his guilt, and to beg the Judge for mercy. And you explain to him how the Judge, who must follow the law with equity, can set a guilty criminal free. You do this through the loving proclamation of the gospel.
This is why I don’t rely on evidence in evangelistic apologetics. And this is why I don’t believe you should, either.
For many helpful resources regarding presuppositional apologetics, please visit Sye Ten Bruggencate’s website, Proof That God Exists.