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There are many application of being able to communicate with the dead but in the interests of scoping I'm interested in law enforcement and sentencing. The method would be scientifically proven communication and no trick or belief required however they would be human... the dead would be just as error prone and fallible as we are!

Assume:

  • The service requires a skilled professional (who most often work for the courts) however once summoned the dead person addresses the room, everyone hears/can talk to them.
  • The dead know everything they knew at the point of their passing plus what they've been told since
  • The dead do not know (or are unwilling to share) information about what happens between visits. In effect they only remember what happens in the living world
  • The dead cannot observe or interact the living world, they can communicate only through these conversations
  • You can only communicate through sound, you can't see each other
  • You can communicate with anyone, however a dead person can only speak to one person at once
  • The dead person can only be summoned if they wish to be, they can also leave at any time (no holding the dead hostage!)

Obviously this would be valuable for people dealing with grief but I'm interested in it's application in law enforcement. What policies of policing and courts would be different if the dead could be contacted?

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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek I'm not sure I follow exactly where you're going but the summoner can summon for as long as they want (as long as they're still there/conscious etc). Probably worth saying the "summoning" is consensual, I don't think you can force a reluctant spirit to answer $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 4 '14 at 12:44
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    $\begingroup$ @PavelJanicek ah I see, no the spirit has to want to stay too. They cannot be made to appear or stay. $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 4 '14 at 12:48
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    $\begingroup$ @dtldarek true - I meant you can't threaten them with violence! Relatives/friends are definite possibilities! $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 4 '14 at 13:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Random they can lie given motivation. They are just as fallible and corrupt as they were when they were living (they are the same people after all) $\endgroup$ – Liath Nov 4 '14 at 13:37
  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Nov 5 '14 at 15:59
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Several ideas what would be different:

Better murder cases: You can ask a person who did murder them. And possibly you could use it as evidence in court

Different inheritance rules You can summon recently deceased person and ask them who should get what. And obviously, you could make sure the deceased person can decide about conditions (like: You get my house, but finish college first!)

Espionage level 2.0: Right now, if you send spy to get some info, and such spy is killed in action, you do not get any info about mission whatsoever. But, if your spy is killed, you can get at least some info. It also means that if you catch a spy, you keep them alive as long as possible to protect your data

Elvis, where are you? You know the cases of "that person is really not dead!" Now you know for sure if given person is dead or alive. Could be used not only for Elvis, but generally for everyone who gets missing. If their summoning from dead fails, you know they are alive and you should try as hard as possible to find them. Once you succeed, you (sadly) know that person is dead and ask them where their body lies

I will sacrifice self so you can live: See above. If group of people gets missing, good survival strategy would be to sacrifice one to let everyone else survive. (better with one dead than everyone dead). And in your "law enforcement" setup, you have to decide, if basically "killing" someone to save everyone is ok or not.

I see dead people. Not Do not forget about black market and impostors. Assume nowadays setup when if you approach medium able to talk with dead, you do not know it is for real, or if its just a play. Even in your setup such people would exist (claim to be trained, but not be trained at all). How would common person decide if they speak with really trained person, or fake? And would it be a crime to pretend that I can speak to dead? EDIT of this paragraph: Even after editing it to make sure that everyone can hear the person, once they are summoned, there is still room for fakery (hidden radio and voice actor is one from top of my head)

But, in law enforcement there is one biggest flaw:

I am dead. And I lie. So what? Imagine I am dead now. Someone summons me because of inheritance. And I tell such person, that I won the lottery (huge bulk of money) and the pile of money is stored in specific destination. But, twist, none of it is true. How do you know I am liar or not?

And take instance of murder. I have been murdered by John Doe. But I hate Thomas Unknown. What happens if I say that I have been murdered by Thomas Unknown? How do you punish me for a lie? I am dead. So what worse can happen to me?

EDIT One more idea:

Public domain? NEVER! Imagine I am popular author. And I die because of age. Someone can summon me and I can help that person to finish my "last" novel. Who is actually author of such novel? And, how do you decide what work is public domain and what is not? And what prevents me to write yet another novel?

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    $\begingroup$ Perhaps you can punish dead people by making them listen to Justin Bieber for all eternity? $\endgroup$ – overactor Nov 4 '14 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ +1 in any case, though you do stray off-topic a little bit. $\endgroup$ – overactor Nov 4 '14 at 12:17
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    $\begingroup$ @overactor That would require a trained person to sing me Justim Bieber forever. Of course you could "train" Justin Bieber to sing to me, but do not forget such "punishment" requires someone willing to punish me ;) $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 4 '14 at 12:23
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    $\begingroup$ I like that this answer recognises that "activated" dead people could have an agenda. What their motives are (or could be) and "what is it like to be dead?" need to have answers in OP's world to help narrow down scope of the question. For instance, if being dead (and separated from a body) makes a person unemotional, or lacking any personal desires, it would put emphasis on different aspects of a good answer. $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Nov 4 '14 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @neminem heck, even if the dead person in question can ignore your summon, can you imagine the tortured souls of dead celebrities being kept busy doing nothing but ignoring summons night and day? $\endgroup$ – Michael Nov 6 '14 at 4:26
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In the courts, all that mechanically changes is that dead people become witnesses.

However...

I feel that they might not make for reliable witnesses.

(SPOILERS: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney)

In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the DL-6 case is a case in which a spirit medium is used to communicate with the dead, as to find out who the murderer is. Relevant excerpts:

On December 28th, 2001, Miles Edgeworth went with his father, Gregory Edgeworth, to the courthouse. Gregory Edgeworth had a trial against Manfred von Karma, a veteran prosecutor who hadn't lost a case in his long career. During the course of the trial Gregory managed to prove that Karma had tampered with evidence, giving him his first penalty in court.

After the proceedings, Gregory, Miles, and a court bailiff named Yanni Yogi left court and entered an elevator. Almost immediately afterwards there was an earthquake and the building lost power. The three remained trapped in the elevator for several hours with little oxygen. Yanni began to panic, and an argument broke out between him and Gregory. During the struggle that ensued Yanni's pistol came loose from his belt. Desperate to stop their fighting, young Miles took the gun and threw it at the pair. It fired once, and all three in the elevator finally lost consciousness.

The power then came on, and the elevator doors finally opened. Inside, Gregory, Miles, and Yanni were all unconscious, and lying next to them was Yanni's pistol. Already furious with Gregory for his failed reputation and under the shock of having just been shot, Karma snatched up the gun and shot Gregory in the heart, killing him instantly. He then left the scene.

The police investigated the murder, without finding any trace of the first bullet fired from Yanni's gun. But the second was a perfect match to Yanni's weapon, and he was charged with the murder. Even that, however, wasn't enough to convict him, and so the police turned to spiritualist Misty Fey (mother to Mia and Maya Fey). She summoned the ghost of Gregory Edgeworth to testify as to the events.

Whether or not Gregory really understood how he had died that afternoon, he was quick to place the blame on Yanni. Through Misty, he claimed that Yanni shot him during their struggle. Miles testified to the same. But Yanni's lawyer, Robert Hammond (employed by the Grossberg & Co. Law Offices at the time) coerced his client into pleading temporary insanity. By placing the blame on panic and oxygen deprivation Yanni was able to earn an acquittal and was set free.

Misty Fey's reputation as a spiritualist was ruined. Because the testimony she had "summoned" from Gregory Edgeworth failed to hold up in court, she was considered a fraud and a fake.

The reason Gregory here gives false testimony is because when he passed out, he was in a sealed elevator. No one else could get in. There were two other people in the room. His son, Miles, and some bailiff, Yanni. He had had an argument with Yanni. He passed out afterwards.

Surely he didn't kill himself. He had heard only one shot, and that was when his son threw the gun. He believes his son killed him, by accident. But he doesn't wish to indict his son. And Yanni was hostile to him anyway. So why not blame Yanni?


This is what I believe to be a relevant example for your world. People may mistake events that happen. I believe that people will have trouble recalling the moment of their death because it is a strange state to be in (dying, as the brain will start to conjure up things that aren't there due to lack of resources), and that their testimony simply isn't solid evidence. It's practically the same as a witness who was in a state of delirium.

The impact of this varies on how your medium/spirit summoning enters the world. If spirit mediums are recently new, expect courts to have suspicions of using the method. Expect people to express distrust.

If they're public knowledge and have been around for a long time, however, expect killings to be done differently. Murdering someone is something you have to do without exposing yourself to your victim. Murderers result from things like domestic violence or disputes gone bad are likely to be solved via testimony of the deceased, but assassinations or sudden deaths (hit-and-run?) are not.

It's not going to solve all cases. It's also not definitive evidence.

I also wonder how you're going to deal with perjury - what if someone who is dead lies?

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    $\begingroup$ +1 As soon as I saw this question, I immediately thought of Phoenix Wright. $\endgroup$ – Ajedi32 Nov 4 '14 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ The Blackwell Legacy games also have a few examples of ghosts with unreliable testimony (although there they can only be seen by the player and a few select others). $\endgroup$ – mmitchell Oct 6 '15 at 0:34
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Since they retain any human motivation they had when they were living, and can lie, I would think their use in law enforcement would be extremely limited. The police might use them to aid in an investigation, like questioning a witness. But they'd be less useful than a witness because a witness can be called into court and threatened with perjury, or complicency in a crime if they don't cooperate or tell the truth. A dead person is not susceptible to such threats, so has much less motivation to "snitch" on a fellow cohort, and more motivation to frame an unliked ex-spouse.

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    $\begingroup$ They can't be prosecuted for perjury, but they also can't be bribed. Any reason to believe that one of these is stronger than the other? (As with other people, they can lie or be mistaken, as you noted.) $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Nov 5 '14 at 3:02
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    $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio But maybe the dead could be blackmailed by threatening other people ("I killed you, and when you rat me out, I will kill your whole family too"). $\endgroup$ – Philipp Nov 5 '14 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, @Philipp said what I was just going to. The dead could be influenced by threatening the living. $\endgroup$ – Random Nov 5 '14 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ ... and pretty much only by the bad guys, since no court that we consider ethical is going to threaten an innocent third party to ensure the good behaviour of the dead witness. $\endgroup$ – Steve Jessop Nov 5 '14 at 22:31
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One thing that is worth mentioning is that kidnapping would be a lot more common than murder all of a sudden. It's no longer possible to shut someone up by killing them, so organised crime would move more towards a kidnapping and slavery approach and holding people hostages than the more traditional "sleeping with the fishes".

So you might find that in this world, human trafficing would be a lot more common. People would attempt suicide just to notify someone that its going on, so I imagine that there would be a greater emphasis on keeping people alive within this trade.

Also, speaking to dead people frequently would most likely end up taking a massive toll on the mental health of the law enforcers, so time off due to stress would be more common.

If you DID need to kill someone, it would probably be common to try and damage the persons brain in a way that makes them unable to recall who did it. The invention of memory wiping devices may have become a common black market item if you decided to go down that route - if not, would a brain damaged person come back as a brain damaged ghost, or would they return fully coherent? What if you cut out their tongue before hand?

It's also worth noting that the dead may have there own reasons to not divulge information on how they died. Still living family members might have been threatened before they died, giving them a reason not to testify.

Terminally ill people may well end up commiting a large portions of serious crime as they basically have nothing to lose, and can guarantee that any proceeds from their crimes actually end up going to their family.

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For law enforcement, I don't think it would make much difference. It'd probably be a good source of witnesses for murders, but people would just start shooting each other in the back, and nothing would change fundamentally.

The courts would be a different story, because it affects some of the founding assumptions of law and ethics. There'd be loads of loopholes from the way laws are currently worded, but even apart from that you could imagine any number of debates about whether ghost testimony is hearsay, whether it's fair to allow witnesses who don't fear perjuring themselves, how it affects the rights of the living etc.

I'd expect cases involving the dead to be automatically longer and more expensive, and quite plausibly their testimony would be simply inadmissible. That might be interesting for a police story, because murder cops would often know who did it, but need to find independent evidence.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is exactly right. Even the dead would have to be treated like any other witness...with all the inaccuracies, not to mention hidden agendas & vendettas. Who says the dead have to tell the truth? Technically since they are not the PERSON who was the witness (but just the spirit) it could be considered heresay. See Salem witch trials for legal precedence on that... $\endgroup$ – HDave Apr 8 '16 at 4:29
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I read a book once, Blue Limbo by Terence Green that played around with a similar dynamic.

In the book, blue limbo is strictly a way of keeping people alive that would be considered clinically dead with modern technology. Essentially, if doctors can get to the deceased's body within a few minutes after death, a machine can keep the brain alive independent of its body and allow communication through a text-only blue-colored terminal. This blue limbo isn't full consciousness, so many of the deceased's potential motives the other posters have mentioned wouldn't necessarily apply.

This style of temporary resurrection automatically ensures many of the qualities you wanted (requires a skilled professional, limited communication, dead can still form memories), but is also limited in time to the very recently deceased.

It's been several years since I read the book, but I remember blue limbo being used as an important plot device in a murder investigation and a substantially different legal system. The deceased's memories leading up to the murder returned slowly, giving investigators conflicting details and leading to a bit of a witch hunt. That's about all I remember.

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    $\begingroup$ IMHO, this doesn't really answer the question -- it tells of a story where this happened, but doesn't answer the question of "how would law enforcement be different." Some more information is needed here for this to be a quality answer. $\endgroup$ – Shokhet Nov 4 '14 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ Another relevant book, Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. In this universe people don't really die, they have little devices in their necks and these can be recovered and implanted in other bodies e.g. criminals. Anyway, this is interesting because part of the plot handles the murder victim not knowing who killed him (i.e. his previous body). In fact he had killed himself because he had committed a crime so terrible he didn't want the police to read it from his mind, but he was not aware of this, and engaged our hero to investigate... $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Nov 5 '14 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Any dead people could be forced to testify about crimes, but could refuse in advance, on religious grounds, and some people had forged these refusals to protect the bad guys... $\endgroup$ – RedSonja Nov 5 '14 at 14:21
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Your world may have ethical issues regarding necromancy. Does your society believe people have an inalienable right to rest in peace? Can police use it whenever they want, or do they warrant to obtain necromantic testimony?

Also, depending upon your society, it could be a traumatic experience for the living to face the dead. This could allow for some nasty threats by a prosecuting attorney to coerce defendants into accepting a plea bargain. Or conversely, defense attorneys could use it as a threat to get people to drop charges.

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