When Your Opponents Build Their Case by Trying to Deconstruct Yours

by J Warner Wallace

I’ve been involved in many criminal trials over the years, sitting next to the prosecutor and evaluating the approach of the defense team as they attempted to counter the case offered by the District Attorney. Both sides have the opportunity to present evidence and offer witnesses to support their position, but I’ve been in many trials where the defense attorneys didn’t call a single witness to the stand. Instead, they chose to vigorously cross-examine the witnesses offered by the prosecution. This is certainly a valid approach to defeating the prosecution’s case, but it can also reveal the weakness of their argument.

Imagine a scenario in which a defendant has been accused of a robbery. The prosecution calls a witness who places the defendant at the scene of the crime. In addition, they offer a video from the scene that shows the suspect wearing clothes similar to those recovered in the search warrant served at the defendant’s home. Finally, they call a witness who testifies the defendant (usually short of cash) had an unexpected sum of money in his possession following the robbery. The defense team has a variety of options as it attempts to respond to this case (and I’ve seen a number of approaches). One effective response is simply to call a witness who can provide an alibi. Two or three witnesses who can account for the defendant at the time of the crime

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would be even better. In addition to this possible approach, defense attorneys sometimes present witnesses and evidence pointing to a different suspect altogether. When these two options aren’t available, defense teams focus in on the evidence presented by the prosecution in an effort to deconstruct the case being presented against their client. They typically do this during the cross-examination process, attacking the credibility and reliability of the prosecution’s witnesses, one at a time. Sometimes this is effective, sometimes it’s not. If the prosecution’s case is robust and includes many witnesses, this defensive strategy starts to look and feel like a futile effort to deny the obvious.

I’ve witnessed a similar approach with those who attempt to attack the historicity of Christianity, most recently with the work of Candida Moss in her book, The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom. The Christian claims related to the martyrdom of early believers are built robustly on the varied, cumulative ancient testimonies of Biblical, Christian and non-Christian witnesses. There are two ways to respond to this large, diverse, cumulative case. One way is simply to cite witnesses who report something different than what has been offered by these witnesses typically cited by Christian case makers. As in cases involving alibi witnesses, the jury could then simply compare the credibility of both sets of ancient descriptions. The problem for those who oppose the traditional historical claims of ancient Christian persecution is the dramatic deficiency of opposing witnesses…

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