Your ABA

Unexpected Truths

  • Print.

Law professor jonathan Turley is more than just another well-known TV talking head. As moderator of a standing-room-only program at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Los Angeles—“Stranger in a Strange Land: Cross-Cultural Issues in the Courts”—Turley was able to draw on actual trial experience.

Turley of the George Washington University Law School recounted his defense last year of Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian who was a computer science professor at the University of South Florida when he was arrested in 2003 for allegedly aiding terrorists.


Turley said it took a polygraph examiner two hours to set a simple base­line for al-Arian’s polygraph test. Such a baseline requires the subject to answer obvious questions both truthfully and falsely to calibrate the machine’s response.

“Have you ever lied to your wife?” Turley recalled the examiner asking.

“No,” replied al-Arian.

“Have you ever violated your parents’ trust?” Same response.

This line of questioning was repeated—with unexpected results. As the examiner grew exasperated, Turley suggested that familial trust is of utmost importance to a Pales­tinian. “He may be telling the truth,” Turley said.

Panelist Alison Dundes Renteln of the University of Southern Cali­fornia said that a lawyer’s failure to plumb such cultural differences in the course of a criminal trial could amount to ineffective assistance of counsel, and that in civil cases such information could have an impact on the amount of a damage award or on exemption from a statute.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.