Character Witnesses vs. Eye witnesses
In a criminal case, the defense and the prosecutor might call witnesses to testify on the stand. There are different types of witnesses, including eyewitnesses and character witnesses.
An eye witness is considered to be the person who allegedly witnessed the crime, whereas the character witness knows the defendant well. The character witness testifies that a defendant is an upstanding person with good character traits.
A character witness provides testimony referred to as character evidence. For it to be admissible in a court of law, it must be based purely on the witness’ personal knowledge of the accused. Conversely, character evidence should also be relevant to the case.
Character evidence involves knowledge of the defendant on personality traits, moral standing, and beliefs.
When is Character Evidence Inadmissible?
Under the common law, character evidence is inadmissible unless the defendant raises the first issue. The U.S. Supreme Court summarized this law in Michelson v. the United States as:
“simply closing the whole matter of character, disposition, and reputation to the prosecution’s case-in-chief.”
The evidence is therefore considered irrelevant. Character evidence resonates much with the jury, and it might overpersuade them to lean towards a certain judgment.
How Character Witnesses Testify for the Defendants
The common law allows the defendant to call character witnesses to testify on their behalf. The witnesses introduce testimony on the defendant’s reputation or instances that showed the defendant’s conduct relevant to the case. The prosecutor then cross-examines the witness on specific knowledge of the defendant’s conduct so that the jury can evaluate how truthful the character witness was.
Prosecutors in most courts do not cross-examine the witness and ask them if the opinion they had of the defendant would change if they were found guilty of their crime. The prosecutors do not also ask the character witness if they know whether the defendant is guilty or not.
Character witnesses must show that they have had direct contact with the defendant. In Federal courts, there is no minimum amount of time of acquaintance between the witness and the defendant.
Character witnesses can also testify against or for other witnesses and give their opinions on whether they think they have good/bad reputation. Although character witnesses provide the background of the legal defendant, their stories must be supervised by the defense attorney so that they are relevant and shape the underlying argument.
Thus, it is obvious that the success of a character witness lies in training to ensure that their emotions and biases do not come out in their testimony. Suppose the witnesses overstep their boundaries due to their connection with the defendant. In that case, they might end up volunteering too much unnecessary information that overshadows the defendant’s credibility.
Character witnesses must win the jury’s favor by being professional, trustworthy, and unbiased. They should be able to provide straightforward answers that leave no room for interpretation.
Things to Consider Before Calling a Character Witness
Sometimes, it is not a good idea to call a character witness to testify on behalf of the defendant. It is why the defendants rarely use this strategy. It has various risks like;
- First, since character witnesses know the defendant well, they are less likely to be believed by a jury. It means that their testimony carries little weight.
- Secondly, once the defense calls a character witness, the prosecution can decide to cross-examine the witness. Since the witness cannot lie under oath, they might end up revealing aspects that paint the defendant’s character in a not-so-appealing manner.
- Lastly, suppose the defense decides to call a character witness that testifies to the defendant’s good character. In that case, the prosecution can also decide to call their witnesses that can challenge that testimony by testifying on the defendant’s bad character. Despite these potential problems, getting the best legal counsel from your attorney is the best way.
Need A Lawyer?
If you are being prosecuted in a criminal case, having an experienced criminal defense lawyer will help you decide whether calling a character witness will be helpful for your case or not. If your reputation and freedom are at stake, ensure that you have the best defense team that will come with the best approach to the case.
Need an Attorney? CALL NOW: 310-274-6529
Seppi Esfandi is an Expert Attorney who has over 21 years of practice defending a variety of cases.