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I have noticed that in order to discredit a witness, instead of simply saying someone is a liar, the defense will call the person a "fantasist".

This brings to mind some child-like person going on adventures with their imaginary friends. Basically they're saying they're crazy.

Personally I've never met a "fantasist" in real life. I wonder do lawyers really think that a person is crazy or is this just one of their arguments in their itinerary to discredit a witness.

I mean unless someone is completely insane they surely have a reason for lying. Even a fantasist can surely separate real life from their fantasies? And if they were really insane wouldn't they be in a mental institution?

Is this a common defense to use on an accuser? Is it taught in law school to use this defense?

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Is this a common defense to use on an accuser? Is it taught in law school to use this defense?

First of all, it isn't a "defense", it is an argument about the credibility of a witness. The defense is that the prosecutor or plaintiff has failed to prove his or her case (or a defendant has failed to prove an affirmative defense) because the sworn testimony from the witness that supports that claim or defense isn't credible and shouldn't be believed.

It is routine to cast doubt on a witness's credibility.

It is quite unusual to accuse someone of being a "fantasist", although despite your lack of experience with such people they most definitely do exist.

I have seen witnesses who just make things up out of whole cloth many times, sometimes for no good reason.

For example, I once questioned a witness in a video deposition in an intellectual property lawsuit who absolutely insisted that two bottles, previously measured to be exactly the same height, were obviously of greatly different heights, despite the fact that doing so did nothing other than to undermine his own credibility.

I've also seen accusations made in cases that simply have no connection to reality whatsoever, like accusations that someone wrote dozens of checks that were never written, or that someone was at a particular place when they were actually hundreds of miles away at that time, or that long elaborate conversations that never happened took place.

Law schools teach various approaches to disproving credibility, but calling someone a "fantasist" is not one of them and if a prosecutor calls something a "liar" in closing argument, that can be grounds for a mistrial in a criminal case (the actual rule is a bit more subtle than that as explained in the linked materials). One reason to call someone mentally ill rather than a liar (probably incorrectly) is to attempt to avoid triggering a mistrial for this reason.

I mean unless someone is completely insane they surely have a reason for lying. Even a fantasist can surely separate real life from their fantasies?

Someone who lies not in the own self-interest, but for no reason, just because they can't separate real life from their fantasies is called a "confabulator" in the psychiatric literature.

Some of the more common causes of that kind of behavior are a thiamine deficiency, dementia associated with old age such as Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, and mass hysteria (e.g. in the Salem Witch trials and more recent Satanic Ritual Abuse cases). Sometimes this behavior isn't totally random, and is instead tinged with paranoia.

Some people, with a condition known as "psychopathy" recklessly lie in their own self-interest without feeling any guilty or discomfort. When somebody lies to cause you to doubt your own grasp of reality, it is called "gaslighting" which is a particularly common tactic of psychopaths.

Another psychological process which isn't that uncommon in overall sane people, and produces similar results, is for someone who has experienced a confusing event to try to craft a narrative of that event that makes sense, influenced by their own biases and suggestions that they receive from others, until they rehash it enough in their minds to come to believe that it is true. It is a bit like playing the game of telephone with yourself.

It is not uncommon, however, for the general population to display some very mild symptoms of provoked confabulations. Subtle distortions and intrusions in memory are commonly produced by normal subjects when they remember something poorly.

From here.

And if they were really insane wouldn't they be in a mental institution?

In the United States, as a consequence of a policy called "deinstitutionalization" there is very little long term inpatient mental health care and the number of long term psychiatric beds continues to decline every year. There are far more mentally ill people in prisons and jails than there are in mental institutions.

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I wonder do lawyers really think that a person is crazy or is this just one of their arguments in their itinerary to discredit a witness.

It's part of their repertoire of "strategies" to delay court proceedings and to obfuscate the matters at issue.

A multitude of attorneys make a living by uttering false statements to unduly prejudice an adverse witness, or (if in civil court) the adversary. Under pretext of due process, these attorneys indulge in vexatious conduct so as to obstruct the course of justice. That is one aspect that makes the legal "profession" so despicable, but in general the courts unfortunately consent to that conduct.

Is this a common defense to use on an accuser?

It depends on what other evidence has been filed in court. If the only evidence is a witness's testimony, the typical lawyer will be very tempted to discredit that witness even if the lawyer knows that doing so is baseless and contrary to his duties as "officer of the court".

Now, if there are records and/or multiple witnesses whose testimonies materially coincide, it is plain stupid and futile (although I'm not saying "unrealistic") for a defense counsel to attempt to prejudice a witness or plaintiff as a "fantasist". But where there is additional evidence, the defense counsel is much more prone to cling to the vexatious defense/allegation of defendant's insanity. That way, the lawyer will allege that the defendant couldn't entertain the prerequisite mental state at the time of committing the crime or offense.

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    "A multitude of attorneys make a living by uttering false statements to unduly prejudice an adverse witness, or (if in civil court) the adversary." This is a gross misstatement. – ohwilleke Jul 16 '18 at 21:32
  • @ohwilleke I can understand why you disagree: you yourself are an attorney. I have no reasons to include you in my assertion, but trying to defend the bulk of unconscionable lawyers is pointless. Here's just one example: An amicus brief filed in the Michigan SC by a bunch of shameless lawyers supporting judge Lisa Gorcyca, who in 2015 bullied & jailed 3 innocent kids for refusing to have lunch with their father. No person with a minimum of dignity could justify the judge's act of brutality. – Iñaki Viggers Jul 17 '18 at 11:44
  • There is a huge difference between uttering false statements to prejudice the taking of evidence and making any form of legal argument. The former is much more tightly regulated than the latter. The fact that you firmly disagree with the position taken by lawyers does not mean that they have made any false statements. – ohwilleke Jul 17 '18 at 17:33
  • @ohwilleke The difference between making a legal argument and trying to preclude evidence doesn't matter here. An honest witness attends proceedings to help ascertaining the truth, not to be unduly prejudiced (even if through oblique or supposedly "subtle" insinuations) or outright calumniated in court just because a lawyer wants to obfuscate matters and make a few more bucks. Or if by "position taken by lawyers" you mean the matter of Gorcyca, no "legal argument" justifies calling 3 innocent kids "blatant" just because a group of lawyers seeks to forge a convenient relation with the judge. – Iñaki Viggers Jul 17 '18 at 23:43

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