Trier of Fact

A trier of fact is someone who determines what the facts are during a trial. For example, a trier of fact examines the evidence that is presented, and then determines whether an event that is said to have occurred actually did occur. Certain facts are determined to be the “facts of the case” as agreed by the parties to the case. Here, a trier of fact is not necessary to prove that these agreed upon facts are, in fact, facts. To explore this concept, consider the following trier of fact definition.

Definition of Trier of Fact

Noun

  1. The judge or jury that is responsible for determining certain issues of fact in a trial.

Origin of Trier

1300-1350       Middle English triour

What is a Trier of Fact

A trier of fact is a person, or group of people, tasked with determining – from the facts of a case – whether a certain thing is true, usually during the trial of the matter. Depending on the way in which the matter is tried, who is considered the trier of fact can vary. For example, the trier of fact during a jury trial is the jury itself. During a bench trial, the trier of fact is the judge, and during an administrative hearing, the administrative law judge serves as the trier of fact.

There are also certain set-ups known as “mixed systems.” Here, a mixture of both judges and lay judges serve as the triers of fact. A “lay judge” is a person who acts as an assistant to a judge during a trial.

In a jury trial, the jury determines the facts of the case, and then uses the relevant statutes and the judge’s guidance to help them reach their verdict. The judge guides the jury by ruling on which evidence a jury can consider, as well as how to apply the laws that govern the case. Jurors are instructed to follow the laws as guided by the judge, but they are not obligated to do so. In some matters, this results in what is known as “jury nullification.” Jury nullification is the jury’s decision to re-write the law, or to blatantly ignore it.

Findings of fact that are made by a jury are not appealable unless they can be interpreted as being blatantly incorrect to any reasonable person. This concept is provided in the Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, which holds that no fact tried by a jury can be re-examined by another Court within the United States.

What is a Fact in a Legal Proceeding

A fact is defined as an action, or a thing done. Facts are both simple and compound. A simple fact expresses only the actual act, with no consideration for morality or rightness of the act. A compound fact considers, not only whether the act occurred, but also the law and morality of the act, thus putting it into context.

In any trial, people recite pieces of information in their attempts to prove that their view is the correct view. Digging through this information in order to figure out what happened is the job of a trier of fact. This applies – not to the determination of guilt or innocence – but to definitively determine whether one issue or fact is in fact true. This established fact is then combined with other facts through trial so that the judge or jury can ultimately determine the outcome.

In a legal proceeding, certain issues must be determined separately as to whether or not they can be considered factual. This is where the trier of fact comes in. In a jury trial, the judge often serves as the trier of fact, determining whether certain information can be presented to the jury.

The Importance of Fact Finding on a Global Scale

In any controversy or judicial proceeding, it is vital that information and facts be obtained and communicated effectively. This job of fact finding is vested in various authorities, depending on the jurisdiction. The importance of fact finding was officially recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1991, as it approved the Declaration on Fact-Finding. This declaration recognized that:

“… the ability of the United Nations to maintain international peace and security depends to a large extent on its acquiring detailed knowledge about the factual circumstances of any dispute or situation.”

The United Nations is, of course, concerned with violations of human rights, and engages in fact-finding regarding war crimes, crimes of aggression against humanity, and genocide. Triers of fact are responsible to review the facts obtained to determine what actually happened, and whether the responsible party should be tried for a crime.

Trier of Fact Example Involving Murder Charge

An example of a trier of fact’s importance in a court case can be seen in the matter of Robert Lee White, who was indicted on a murder charge on January 12, 1975, in Lubbock County, Texas. Shortly afterwards, however, his attorneys called into question White’s competency to stand trial.

About six months later, the trial court granted the defense’s motion for a psychiatric evaluation to be performed on White. The court also directed that White be released from jail for the purpose of being tested. The court granted three additional requests made by defense counsel for additional neurological and psychiatric testing.

On September 3, 1976 – more than a year later – the court ordered an examination be performed by an additional psychiatrist to determine whether White was capable of standing trial. The psychiatrist reported back that White had been psychotic for “at least” the past seven years or so.

In January 1977, the court determined that evidence did exist that proved that White was not competent to stand trial. The court called in a jury as triers of fact and ordered a competency hearing to help determine if White was truly able to stand trial. At the hearing, the psychiatrist and two psychologists, who had previously examined White, testified that, based upon their tests, they considered White to be “chronically psychotic.” This meant that he suffered from schizophrenia, which he had been afflicted with for quite some time in their estimations.

The experts further testified that White’s IQ was only 69-75, which signaled to them that he was borderline mentally retarded. The experts concluded that, while White understood the charges that had been filed against him, his mental disorders rendered him unable to properly consult with his attorneys. One of the attorneys testified that White was, in fact, unable to assist in formulating his defense.

The prosecution called two experts – a neurologist and a radiologist – who testified that there was no evidence of White suffering brain damage that would hamper his ability to stand trial. The prosecution then called two additional witnesses – White’s jailer and a deputy sheriff – who stated that White acted just like the other prisoners, and appeared to converse normally with his attorneys. The prosecutor urged the jury to believe that White had misled the experts into believing that he was mentally disturbed when he was, in fact, normal.

The judge instructed the jury that “a person is incompetent to stand trial if he does not have sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding; or, a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him.” The jury then came back with a simple verdict, which was that they found White to be competent enough to stand trial. In this example, the jury acted as a trier of fact for the simple purpose of determining whether White was competent.

White attempted to appeal the decision with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The petition was denied by the court, however, on the ground that the evidence presented “was legally sufficient to enable a rational trier of facts to make the same findings which the jury made.”

White appealed this decision also, but the Court of Appeals only affirmed the lower court’s ruling, holding that a court must determine “whether, after viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The court believed that enough evidence had been presented for a rational trier to find White competent to stand trial. The case made its way all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, however White’s petition for a writ of certiorari was ultimately denied.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Administrative Law Judge – A judge who rules on disputes involving administrative law.
  • Jury – A group of people sworn to render a verdict in a trial, based on evidence presented.
  • Trial – A formal presentation of evidence before a judge and jury for the purpose of determining guilt or innocence in a criminal case, or to make a determination in a civil matter.
  • Writ of Certiorari – An order issued by a higher court demanding a lower court forward all records of a specific case for review.
  • Writ of Habeas CorpusA court order to deliver a jailed person to the court that issued the order, and to show a legitimate reason for that person’s imprisonment.

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