Civic Duty

For C.S., for many reasons.

John Grisham lays down the law:

The Feds:

The law was quite simple: Every citizen owes to society the duty of giving testimony to aid in the enforcement of the law. And, a witness is not excused from testifying because of his fear of reprisal threatening his and / or his family’s lives. It was black letter law, as they say, carved in stone over the years by hundreds of judges and justices. No exceptions. No exemptions. No loopholes for scared little boys. Roy and Wally had read dozens of cases. Many were copied and highlighted and thrown about on the table. The kid would have to talk.1

The Defense:

In one corner of the small den above the garage, Reggie flipped through a thick book under a lamp. It was midnight, but she couldn’t sleep, so she curled under a quilt and sipped tea while reading a book Clint had found titled Reluctant Witnesses. As far as law books go, it was quite thin. But the law was quite clear: Every witness has a duty to come forth and assist those authorities investigating a crime. A witness cannot refuse to testify on the grounds that he or she feels threatened. The vast majority of the cases cited in the book dealt with organized crime. Seems the Mafia has historically frowned on its people schmoozing with the cops, and has often threatened wives and children. The Supreme Court has said more than once that wives and children be damned. A witness must talk.2

Attorney and Client:

“Well, it’s very simple. We’ll have a hearing before Judge Harry Roosevelt in a few minutes, in his courtroom, that may last a couple of hours. The U.S. attorney and the FBI are claiming that you possess important information, and I think we can expect them to ask the judge to make you talk.”

“Can the judge make me talk?”

Reggie was speaking very slowly and carefully. He was an eleven-year-old child, a smart one with plenty of street sense, but she’d seen many like him and knew that at this moment he was nothing but a scared little boy. He might hear her words, and he might not. Or, he might hear what he wanted to hear, so she had to be careful.

“No one can make you talk.”


“But the judge can put you back in the same little room if you don’t talk.”

“Back in jail!”

“That’s right.”

“I don’t understand. I haven’t done a damned thing wrong, and I’m in jail. I just don’t understand this.”

“It’s very simple. If, and I emphasize the word if, Judge Roosevelt instructs you to answer certain questions, and if you refuse, then he can hold you in contempt of court for not answering, for disobeying him. Now, I’ve never known an eleven-year-old kid to be held in contempt, but if you were an adult and you refused to answer the judge’s questions, then you’d go to jail for contempt.”

“But I’m a kid.”

“Yes, but I don’t think he’ll allow you to go free if you refuse to answer the questions. You see, Mark, the law is very clear in this area. A person who has knowledge of information crucial to a criminal investigation cannot withhold this information because he feels threatened. In other words, you can’t keep quiet because you’re afraid of what might happen to you or your family.”

“That’s a stupid law.”

“I don’t really agree with it either, but that’s not important. It is the law, and there are no exceptions, not even for kids.”

“So I get thrown in jail for contempt?”

“It’s very possible.” …

Mark breathed deeply and stared at her hand on his knee. “Can I just take the Fifth Amendment?”

“No. It won’t work, Mark. I’ve already thought about it. The questions will not be asked to incriminate you. They will be asked for the purpose of gathering information you may have.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t blame you. Listen to me carefully, Mark. I’ll try to explain it. They want to know what Jerome Clifford told you before he died. They will ask you some very specific questions about the events immediately before the suicide. They will ask you what, if anything, Clifford told you about Senator Boyette. Understand? You had nothing to do with it. And, you had nothing to do with the suicide of Jerome Clifford. You broke no laws, okay? You’re not a suspect in any crime or wrongdoing. Your answers cannot incriminate you. So, you cannot hide under the protection of the Fifth Amendment.” She paused and watched him closely. “Understand?”

“You’re here because they think you know something valuable, and because, as I stated, every person has a duty to assist law enforcement officials in the course of their investigation.”

“I still say it’s a stupid law.”

“Maybe so. But we can’t change it today.”3

Judge and Witness:

There was a pause as Harry waited to see if he was finished. “Is that all he said?” …

“What do you mean?” Mark asked, stalling.

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything else?” …

“Mark, I asked you if Mr. Clifford said anything else.”

“Like what?”

“Like, did he mention anything about Senator Boyd Boyette?”


Harry flashed a sweet little smile, then it was gone. “Mark, did Mr. Clifford mention anything about a case of his in New Orleans involving a Mr. Barry Muldanno or the late Senator Boyd Boyette?” …

“I don’t think I want to answer that question,” he said, staring at the floor, …

“Mark, look at me,” Harry said like a gentle grandfather. “I want you to answer the question. Did Mr. Clifford mention Barry Muldanno or Boyd Boyette?”

“Can I take the Fifth Amendment?”


“Why not? It applies to kids, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but not in this situation. You’re not implicated in the death of Senator Boyette. You’re not implicated in any crime.”

“Then why did you put me in jail?”

“I’m going to send you back there if you don’t answer my questions.”

“I take the Fifth Amendment anyway.”

They were glaring at each other, witness and judge, and the witness blinked first. His eyes watered and he sniffed twice. He bit his lip, fighting hard not to cry. He clenched the armrests and squeezed until his knuckles were white. Tears dropped onto his cheeks, but he kept staring up into the dark eyes of the Honorable Harry Roosevelt.

The tears of an innocent little boy. Harry turned to his side and pulled a tissue from a drawer under the bench. His eyes were wet too. …

“Mark, I don’t like to do this, but you must answer my questions. If you refuse, then you’re in contempt of court. Do you understand this?”

“Yes sir. Reggie explained it to me.” …

“Did Mr. Clifford mention the name Barry Muldanno to you?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford mention the name Boyd Boyette to you?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything about the murder of Boyd Boyette?”

“Take the Fifth.”

“Did Mr. Clifford say anything about the present location of the body of Boyd Boyette?”

“Take the Fifth.”

Harry removed his reading glasses for the tenth time and rubbed his face. “You can’t take the Fifth, Mark.”

“I just did.”

“I’m ordering you to answer these questions.”

“Yes sir. I’m sorry.”

Harry took out a pen and began writing.

“Your Honor,” Mark said. “I respect you and what you’re trying to do. But I cannot answer these questions because I’m afraid of what might happen to me or my family.”

“I understand, Mark, but the law does not allow private citizens to withhold information that might be crucial to a criminal investigation. I’m following the law, not picking on you. I’m holding you in contempt. I’m not angry with you, but you leave me no choice. I’m ordering you to return to the Juvenile Detention Center, where you will remain as long as you’re in contempt.”4

We are presented with two questions:

  1. Is a witness obligated to testify in aid of a criminal investigation or prosecution?
  2. If so, does this requirement hold even in the presence of a substantial risk to the witness or others?

We can answer the first question in the affirmative; although there is apparently no direct, explicit Biblical or Talmudic injunction to this effect, Rambam and Sefer Ha’Hinuch do declare such an obligation, and I am aware of no dissenting view:

העד מצווה להעיד בבית דין בכל עדות שיודע. בין בעדות שיחייב בה את חבירו בין בעדות שיזכהו בו. והוא שיתבענו להעיד בדיני ממונות שנאמר והוא עד או ראה או ידע אם לא יגיד ונשא עונו:

היה העד חכם גדול והיה בבית דין פחות ממנו בחכמה. הואיל ואין כבודו שילך לפניהם עשה של כבוד תורה עדיף ויש לו להמנע. במה דברים אמורים בעדות ממון. אבל בעדות שמפריש בה מן האיסור וכן בעדות נפשות או מכות הולך ומעיד שנאמר אין חכמה ואין תבונה לנגד ה’. כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב:5

המצוה הקע”ח

הציווי שנצטווינו למסור עדות לפני הדיינים על כל מה שאנו יודעים, בין שיש בכך משום אבוד למי שמעידים עליו, או הצלת זה שמעידים לו בממונו או בנפשו, חייבים אנו להעיד על כל זה ולהודיע לדיינים מה שראינו או שמענו.

וכבר הביאו ע”ה ראיתם על חיוב העדות ממה שאמר יתעלה: “והוא עד או ראה או ידע” (שם ה, א). והעובר על מצווה זו- והוא הכובש עדותו – חטאו גדול.

.והוא אמרו יתעלה: “אם לוא יגיד ונשא עונו” (שם). וזהו דבר כללי.

אך אם העדות שכבשה היא עדות ממון ונשבע עליה העד תוך כבישתה – חייב קורבן עולה ויורד, כמו שבאר הכתוב (שם שם, ה-י) ולפי התנאים הנזכרים בשבועות.

וכבר נתבארנו דיני מצווה זו בסנהדרין ובשבועות.6

להגיד העדות בפני הדיינין בכל מה שנדעהו בין שיתחייב בעדות מיתה או ממון המועד עליו, או שיהיה הצלתו בממונו או בנפשו, שנאמר והוא עד או ראה או ידע או לא יגיד ונשא עונו, בכל ענין חובה עלינו להגיד העדות לפני הבית דין.

ואולם חילוק יש בין דיני ממונות לדיני נפשות ושאר איסורין שבתורה, שבדיני ממונות אין אדם חייב להעיד עליהם מעצמו אלא אם כן יתבענו בעל הדבר או בית דין, ובדיני נפשות ובעדות שאר איסורין שבתורה כגון שראה אחד שעבר על איסור, וכן בעידות נפשות כגון שראה מי שהרג חבירו, או בעדות מכות שהכה האחד את חבירו, בכל זה חייב אדם לבוא מעצמו ולהגיד העידות לפני הבית דין כדי לבער הרע ולהפריש בני אדם מאיסור.

משרשי המצוה לפי שיש במצוה זו תועלת גדולה לבני אדם, אין צריך להאריך בהם, כי ידועים הדברים לכל רואי השמש. …

והעובר עליה ולא העיד בדיני ממונות כשתבעוהו לעדות בעל דבר או בית דין, או בדיני נפשות ומכות ובאיסורין של תורה מעצמו, בטל עשה וענשו גדול מאד, כי בכח העדות יתקיימו הישובים, על כן נכתב בו אם לא יגיד ונשא עונו.7

While I am not aware of any discussion of our second question, I assume that the threshold for exemption due to risk of harm is the same as for other commandments, and it would seem, therefore, that one would not be required to testify against a prominent Mafioso where there exists a serious threat of lethal reprisal.

  1. John Grisham, The Client, pp. 257-258. []
  2. Ibid. pp. 261-262. []
  3. Ibid. 322-326. []
  4. Ibid. pp. 357-361. []
  5. יד החזקה, עדות א:א-ב – קשר []
  6. ספר המצוות (מהדורת קפאח) עשין קע”ח – קשר []
  7. ספר החינוך (מוסד הרב קוק [מהדורה רביעית]: ירושלים תש”ך), מצוה ק”כ [ובדפוסים אחרים: קכ”ב] “מצות עדות” עמוד קפא – קשר []