Truth, Trials and Veritaserum
“Sir, there are some other things I’d like to know, if you can tell me…things I want to know the truth about…””The truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and therefore should be treated with great caution.”
— (SS, 298, US version)
If only we knew who was telling the truth and who was lying. If only we could tell the true story from the false one. The innocent could be distinguished from the guilty, if only we could guarantee that witnesses and the accused are telling the truth, and nothing but the truth. Right?
As Muggles, we’ve attempted to determine the truthfulness of testimony through polygraph tests. However, as we well know, those are highly subjective and flawed. They are no guarantee of validity and are not reliable “lie detectors.” But for the wizarding world, where much more is possible, it seems as though a good Truth Potion would solve all of the problems and confusions dealing with criminals and criminal trials. It’s simple – just give a dose of Veritaserum or another Truth Potion to the witness before being “sworn in” and we’ll have a reliable testimony. It seems, at first glance, to be a rather obvious solution that would clear up matters efficiently.
However, Truth Potions, upon closer look, are deadly double-edged devices. This is probably why the wizarding world doesn’t use them in criminal trials. As there are ways around polygraph tests, there are ways in which Truth Potions can be abused.
A Truth Potion, by principle, does not make someone tell the truth, but what that someone perceives as the truth. A person could be quite mistaken in the events she/he witnessed, yet be completely “telling the truth” – that is, the truth according to him or her. A Truth Potion can only force one to reveal what one believes to be true and that is not necessarily the truth.
A good example of this case, in which a Truth Potion would not help decipher the actual occurrence, but muddy the waters through a reliance on it, is the case of our good friend Sirius Black. As revealed in PoA, “‘a street full of eyewitnesses swore they saw Sirius murder Pettigrew'” (PoA, 392), when that was not actually the case, and “‘they didn’t see what they thought they saw'” (PoA, 351). The Ministry, if it hypothetically administered Truth Potions, would find Black’s story at odds with the testimony given by the witnesses and Dumbledore, even if all parties were “telling the truth” under the influence of the potion. How would the Ministry determine who is telling the truth, and who is telling the truth according to him? As there are several eyewitnesses and Dumbledore with stories that conflict with Sirius’s, the Ministry would assume that Sirius is telling what he believes to be the truth rather than what actually happened.
This is the conclusion that Fudge comes to in GoF, when Dumbledore tells him about questioning Barty Crouch Jr. under the influence of Veritaserum. As Fudge says, “‘Come now, come now…certainly Crouch may have believed himself to be acting upon You-Know-Who’s orders – but to take the word of a lunatic like that, Dumbledore…'” (GoF, 704). Fudge immediately assumes that Barty Crouch Jr. was not telling the actual truth, but the perceived truth of a raving madman. This is the logical flaw of Veritaserum, which Fudge immediately uses as the only possible explanation. After all, what one believes to be true can be very different from the actual truth.
The hypothetical system of administering Truth Potions can also be easily corrupted. In which cases would a witness or an accused be subjected to a Truth Potion? As we have seen with Barty Crouch Jr., once under a Truth Potion’s influence, a person lacks normal awareness, judgment, and will. She/he is at the mercy of the interrogators. If certain questions do not get asked, s/he does get a chance to explain and can look very guilty, indeed. For example, what if Harry had to take Veritaserum before sitting down at his hearing? Let’s assume as well that Dumbledore isn’t there to help. Harry would answer all the questions as “yes,” making him look very guilty. The “yes, but–” is his conscious self trying to butt in (ok, bad pun) and give an explanation, something more than a single word answer. He might even be convicted if nobody thought to ask why he had performed magic and that particular magic. Fudge could have easily decided to end all further questions and make it seem that Harry is guilty as charged. Unless someone specifically asks why he used a Patronus Charm, poor Harry has no chance to explain. If the Ministry did use Truth Potions on a regular basis, I wouldn’t put it past Fudge to do exactly that. Abuses of such power are inevitable.
Those are probably some of the logical reasons why the wizarding world has avoided using Veritaserum, except under “‘very strict Ministry guidelines'” (GoF, 517). Another reason against its use may reside in the Wizengamot Charter of Rights. Though the HP books take place in Britain, I believe there must be something like the 5th Amendment in the Charter. I am referring, of course, to the right one has to not give evidence that may incriminate oneself, better known in the Miranda rights as “the right to remain silent” or also known as “pleading the Fifth.” It would be a violation of the accused’s rights to force him or her to testify under the influence of a Truth Potion. This comes from the idea of “innocent until proven guilty.” The accused is not required to testify and prove his innocence – she/he is already assumed to be so. After all, OJ Simpson never took the witness stand during his criminal trial. Dumbledore is a believer of “innocent until proven guilty” (CoS, 144). Someone with his influence could have put a 5th Amendment-like clause into the Charter, if it had not been there already.
So why aren’t Truth Potions used in wizards’ criminal trials? For one, they are fundamentally flawed, guaranteeing that one will tell his or her own version of the truth instead of the actual truth. Secondly, they can easily be abused by those corrupted by power. Thirdly, they are in violation of the accused rights, which are possibly spelled out in the Wizengamot Charter of Rights. Magic, clearly, can’t solve everything.
But it does rather seem a pity that in a magical world, there isn’t some solution to he problems that hound criminal trials. An alternative solution to a Truth Potion ay be a magical lie detector. Mad-Eye oody’s squiggly golden aerial, or Secrecy Sensor, may do the trick, but a better idea could be a spell that causes the air around a person to light up if she/he lies; the bigger or more blatant the lie, the more intense the color or light. Or maybe some sort of Pinocchio spell – that would be amusing. But already one can see the problems – how can a spell tell if someone is lying if that someone is sociopath, an expert doublethinker, or a “superb Occlumens”?
So, even with all the potential wonders of the magical world, the magical Court of Justice still finds its hands tied when dealing with criminal trials. This is rather a pity, for one would think that there was a nice, simple magical solution. But as we’ve seen, magic is hardly simple and definitely cannot solve everything.