The Evidence of Torture

Thursday Lecture Series, Evidence

April 21, 2011 Thursday, 12:15pm EDT The Heyman Center, Columbia University

Jurists have struggled with the definition of evidence longer than any other discipline. Roman jurists were the first to develop a language to define evidence in their courts. It was left to medieval jurists to expand what kinds of evidence constituted a “full proof”—guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Torture was also an important part of Roman jurisprudence and was used under certain circumstances to produce evidence. Even though the Romans used torture, they distrusted it as a means of obtaining reliable evidence. On the foundation of Roman jurisprudence, medieval jurists developed sophisticated concepts of evidence and explored how and when torture could be used in court procedure. They did not, however, put torture at the center of court procedure nor did they use it to produce evidence as post-Enlightenment governments have done—using it instead as a way to confirm evidence that had already been presented in court.