Examining the Reliability of Court Witnesses

Justice is a noble thing. It is a concept of moral rightness based on ethics, rationality, law, natural law, and equity and fairness. Access to justice is a basic human right that should be afforded to everyone. However, in the current political climate, justice can be elusive. The truth can be easily bent to favor the powerful, hence resulting to depravity of justice. For this reason, witnesses who testify at court trials bear a heavy responsibility of ensuring that the truth prevails. Now, what is a court witness exactly? Why is it important for a court witness to be credible and reliable? The answers are briefly discussed below.

What is a court witness?

A court witness is a person who is called to court to answer questions about a case because he or she either saw a crime, was a victim of a crime, or has the necessary knowledge or expertise that can help solve a crime. The witness can be served with a subpoena to summon him or her to attend court in case there are hesitations on his or her part. The information that he or she gives in court (called testimony) is then used as evidence to iron out the facts of the alleged crime. Because the witness testimony is a compelling type of evidence and provides a great basis for solving the case, the witness is expected to tell the truth. Otherwise, he or she will be charged with perjury once caught lying.

There are three main types of witnesses who can provide testimony at court trials: eyewitness, character witness, and expert witness. An eyewitness is a person who has seen the alleged crime or a facet of it. He or she provides observational testimony to the court, which is sometimes deemed unreliable, but is presumed better than circumstantial evidence. A character witness, on the other hand, is someone who vouches under oath to the good reputation of another person (oftentimes the accused). His or her testimony is especially helpful when the honesty and morality of the accused is being questioned. Lastly, an expert witness is a person who is permitted to testify at a trial court because his or her knowledge and expertise in a certain field is relevant to the case. He or she is demanded to provide opinion evidence to assist in the resolution of the case.

Why is the reliability of a court witness important?

The credibility and reliability of a court witness is utterly important because his or her testimony provides a great basis for deciding the case. He or she plays a vital role in determining whether or not justice will be achieved. Sometimes, the witness can be the only source of a piece of information critical to solving the crime. Even in the presence of physical evidence, the testimony of the witness is still necessary because it can create a coherent narrative that can further elucidate the case. So, when the witness is unreliable and dishonest, he or she can come up with incoherent narratives that will only result to the blurring of the truth.

There are numerous different factors that juries consider when it comes to deciding the reliability of a witness testimony. These include:

  • Presence of a personal or financial interest that the witness may have in the case
  • Leniency or immunity offered to the witness for their own possible crimes in return his or her testimony
  • Bias of the witness for or against either party involved in the case
  • Clarity and consistency of the witness testimony
  • Presence of contradictions in the statements of the witness
  • The reputation of the witness for being honest and trustworthy
  • Presence of anything that might have hindered the ability of the witness to see or hear the events of crime clearly (e.g. visual or hearing impairment and alcohol influence)

Can a court witness be discredited?

When proven unreliable and dishonest, a court witness can be impeached. Witness impeachment is the process of calling into question the credibility and reliability of a person testifying at a court trial. Lawyers are the ones to take various measures to question the credibility of a court witness. They discredit the witness using some methods including cross-examination, outside evidence, and contradicting witness testimony.

During cross-examination, the lawyer attempts to raise doubts about the credibility of the witness by asking some questions that are intended to elicit dubious answers. Using other evidence, on the other hand, the lawyer introduces extrinsic evidence that is not directly related to the case, but is relevant to determining the credibility of the witness (e.g. criminal record or social media post). In some instances, the lawyer may also call another witness to give a testimony that contradicts the testimony of the witness in question.

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