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And Who Stole The Tarts?

by Hans Bluedorn

Last time, we talked about "reason to lie," and how people who have a reason to lie should be more suspect than people who don't. For example, politicians nearly always have a reason to lie, and we should always suspect what they tell us.

The problem is knowing whether someone has such a reason, because people who have something to hide often are very good at keeping it hidden.

If you were on a jury and had to decide if somebody was guilty of a crime – it would be good to know if an important witness were lying. This knowledge would also be useful if you were a crime investigator seeking to find out who-dun-it.

But, if you were a detective, or on a jury, "reason to lie" isn't the only question you should consider before trusting someone. There are actually three questions to answer (well, there are many more than three, but these are the most important):

  1. Is the person a Primary or Secondary source?
  2. Do they have a Reason to Lie?
  3. Is there any Corroborating Evidence?

These three questions will help when we evaluate how trustworthy a witness is.

1. Is the person a primary or secondary source?

A primary source is an eyewitness, somebody who was there when whatever we are talking about happened. A secondary source is not an eyewitness; they were not there, but heard the story from somebody who was.

For a crime investigator or jury member, a primary (eyewitness) source is much more valuable than a secondary source. Stories tend to change with the telling, so the primary source – who actually witnessed the event – is usually more accurate than the secondary source – who only heard it recounted.

Detective: "Now ma'am, can you tell us what happened?"

Cook: "Yes, officer, I saw who stole the tarts.
Most truly I tell you it was the Knave of Hearts.
He sneaked into the kitchen and stole those tarts."

A most terrible deed today was done.
That man of Hearts made his way in and left not one.
The detective says he can not find the plunderer:
"I'm afraid the tarts are gone for good, he's probably eaten them by now."
- The Royal Enquirer

The Royal Enquirer is a secondary source because whoever wrote the article didn't see what happened, but only heard ABOUT it from somebody else.

Gossips are almost always secondary sources, because they usually repeat to others what they heard from Cousin Nessie, who heard it from Ralph's Sister, Margaret, who heard it from . . .

Other primary sources for this crime could be: the janitor, who noticed a trail of crumbs leading out the back door, or the mouse who was about to steal a tart himself. Also, physical items can be primary sources, such as the fingerprints of the thief, or a discarded plate found outside, or tarts found in the Knave's coat pocket.

Other examples of secondary sources could be: Encyclopedia articles on the Great Tart Burglary, nursery rhymes, or a movie "The Great Tart Robbery." These things would most likely be written by people who weren't there.

2. Does he have a reason to lie?

Someone has a reason to lie if he would benefit by changing, distorting, or exaggerating what he saw or did. Someone might have a reason to lie if he says things that make him look good or help his interests. An example of a person who might have a reason to lie would be the Knave of Hearts himself.

"I did not steal those tarts on the plates.
The one who says so prevaricates."

Someone related to the person on trial, like the mother of the Knave might have a reason to lie:

"My son could never steal,
not even for a very good meal."

Anybody else who is afraid of being suspected of the crime might have a motive to lie.

Gardener: "I don't even like tarts."

3. Is there corroborating evidence?

For a witness, it is good to have corroborating evidence – something that supports their testimony. Someone has corroborating evidence when there are other witnesses, records, or evidence which supports the same idea.

If a witness has corroborating evidence, then his testimony is strengthened. In the Bible, Pharaoh's wife showed Joseph's coat because it appeared to corroborate her story.

Detective: "Sir, the Cook says the Knave of Hearts did it. Can you tell me what you saw?"
Knave of Diamonds: "I was in the garden when I saw the Knave.
He was covered with crumbs.
Yes, he had crumbs on both his thumbs."

So the Knave of Diamonds as well as the cook saw the Knave of Hearts with the tarts! This evidence supports what the Cook said she saw. Her testimony is strengthened.

Other examples of corroborating evidence would be: Another witness who agrees with the cook about who stole the tarts, or crumbs found in the knave's room.


Last night, a painting was stolen from Mrs. McLeary's country mansion. Constable Dobson has been called to investigate. Upon arriving, Constable Dobson gathered some clues:

McLeary lives in a large house in the country with a large servant staff.

Her prized possession is the painting "The Picnic" by Manoot. While everybody knows the picture is worth practically nothing, she considers it priceless. She keeps the painting hanging in the library. Every night she ensures all the doors of the house are locked.

On Monday night, Mrs. McLeary's painting was stolen from her library wall. While the painting is insured, Mrs. McLeary still wants it recovered.


Constable Dobson noticed that the library window was forced.

The picture frame, without the picture in it, was found in the bushes near the house.

A vagrant named "Pinkie" was found loitering around the McLeary mansion. He was arrested for stealing the painting.

Constable Dobson then asked some questions, and heard the following:

Brinckley, the Butler: "I slept soundly, sir, and so have nothing useful to convey regarding the night's proceedings. However, sir, yesterday afternoon, when I was in the garden, I chanced to encounter the vagrant known as "Pinkie" upon the grounds. I caught him in the act of peering into one of the library windows. I though the information might be useful in your investigation, sir."

Mrs. McLeary: "I can't believe it's gone! My precious painting! But I know who stole it. It was that vagrant. I know because I saw him at it. I got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water. When I was going back to bed I looked out the window. I saw a man on the lawn - he looked like a vagrant. He was running away with a large square object under his arm. I didn't think anything about it until I came downstairs this morning and my painting was gone."

On the way to the police station, Constable Dobson met Mrs. Norton, Mrs. McLeary's neighbor.

Mrs. Norton: "So, somebody finally pinched that monstrosity of a painting. If you ask me, I think the old buzzard stole it herself. She just wants to collect on the insurance. Everybody knows that she is hard up for money these days. If she doesn't collect the insurance money, she'll have to sell the house."

Pinkie the Vagrant: "I haven't done nothin'. It wern't me who took it, it was that Mrs. McLeary. Last night, I was lying in the bushes, tryin' to get an honest man's sleep, when I saw 'er comin' through a window with a picture under 'er arm. Breakin' out of 'er own 'ouse didn't seem natural, so I kept lookin'. She came over to the bushes and took that frame off the picture, and threw it in the bushes. Then she walked off. I don't know what she did after that."


When writing your answers to this quiz, please stick only to what you know about the case, not things you imagine could be true.

The object here isn’t to solve the mystery, but to evaluate the stories. Examine the stories of Brinckley the Butler, Mrs. McLeary, Mrs. Norton, and Pinkie the Vagrant. For each person, answer the three questions: 1) Is he or she a Primary or Secondary source? 2) Might he or she have a Reason to Lie? 3) Is there any Corroborating Evidence? Then say whether you think the source is reliable.

Reply to this email with your answers.

[A couple words about reason to lie. Last time, some of you thought that if somebody had a reason to lie then we could say we knew they WERE lying. This isn’t true. Just because somebody has a reason to lie, that doesn’t mean they actually ARE lying.

If I had a good reason to rob a bank that wouldn’t mean that I am going to go out and do it–that would be wrong. It only means there is a potential. And so, a reason to lie only means we should suspect what that person says, and should check it out more.]

Copyright January 14, 2004, all rights reserved. 5793 views

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