Monday, September 22, 2014

Raising Your Hand On The Witness Stand -- Why we do this might surprise you.

I just read an interesting article by Leslie Budewitz, an award-winning author and a member of Sisters In Crime, an organization I am proud to belong to. The information was so fascinating I just had to share it with you.
A court reporter or a bailiff asks a witness to raise his/her right hand, then asks, “Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”
How much did this trial disgust you?
The custom of raising our hands has a very grisly origin. Scholars traced this back to the seventeenth century before written record keeping was widespread. The judge imposed harsh sentences back then. If you were found guilty of theft, they would brand a "T" on your right hand. theft
If you were found guilty of manslaughter, they branded the letter M. The letter F for felony, and so forth.Jefferson_Slave-Image3
To show the court, jury, audience that you had never been committed of a crime the defendant would raise their right hand to show that they had not been branded. If a defendant had committed a heinous crime in the past, the sentence imposed by the judge would be much harsher, serving a longer sentence behind bars, or worse. At the very least another branding would surely follow.
From there the practice of raising your hand extended to juries and witnesses-- and even to casual interactions. As in "I swear," to indicate something truly happened.
Some folks balked at the conventional oath, requiring them to “swear” that their testimony or statements were true. For this reason, many courts now use the language “Do you swear, or affirm, that the testimony you are about to give is true?” In some courts, witnesses or jurors may need to request permission to attest or affirm. A shrinking minority of courts require a stated reason to affirm rather than swear. 
This language change began with the Quakers. Quakers balked at the conventional oath, requiring them to “swear” that their testimony or statements were true, mainly for religious reasons. Quakers found Biblical support in the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes, and your no be no.” (Matthew 5:37) The idea is that one’s veracity should be judged based on reputation for truthfulness. But of course, in modern society, we often don’t know each other or the reputation of the witness in the box.
Fun fact for all you crime writers out there: "Dock" is the proper term for the witness stand.
I swear, I will never again look at the witness dock in the same way. How about you?
Sue Coletta is a crime fiction author, a proud member of Sisters In Crime, a wife, mother to two adorable furry kids, and a bragging grandmother to a one-year-old baby girl. Sue has authored three novels, Timber Point, Silent Betrayal and A Strangled Rose. You can reach Sue by email at: To learn more about her books go to:


Eliza Cross said...

I had no idea! Thanks for writing about such an interesting topic, and I must say I'm glad that as a society we dropped the hand branding practice.

Sue Coletta said...

Me too! I love finding bits of information like this. I'm glad you found it as interesting as I did.

Unknown said...

Had branding continued, we would have run out of single letters. I is for identity theft . . .

Mia Thompson said...

I'm actually working on court scenes right now. This was really helpful! Thanks Sue:)

Sue Coletta said...

Glad I could help.

Sue Coletta said...

Or, indecent exposure.

Susan Clayton-Goldner said...

Very interesting blog, Sue. I had no idea

Sue Coletta said...

Neither did I. I love finding interesting facts for crime fiction!