By Benjamin A. Tracy, Columbus Criminal Defense Lawyer and Civil Rights Attorney
This is the second part of a series of posts about what evidence can, cannot, should, and should not, be used in court.
Part II, Almost All Witness Can Testify, But Not All Should
In medieval times, serfs (very poor folk) generally could not testify in courts. The same was true for black persons in early America. In modern America however, everyone can testify. There are no longer classes of people who are forbidden from expressing themselves in court. The only real requirement to be allowed to be a witness is that the witness have “personal knowledge” of what they want to talk about. (I.e., I cannot testify as a witness to a shooting because I read about it in the paper). However, the mere fact that everyone can testify does not mean that everyone should testify.
In Part I of this series we discussed relevance and how the fact that someone was “bad” could not be used as evidence against them if it was not relevant to the crime with which they were charged. However, there are some exceptions to this rule. One major exception is this: If a witness testifies (even if the witness is also the defendant), the other side can introduce evidence to show that the witness is lying on this particular occasion or is generally known to be a liar. There are several types of evidence which can be used for this reason.
If you have a felony conviction where you were released from confinement less than ten years prior to the date on which you want to testify, evidence of that crime will likely be able to be used against you. In addition, if you were released from confinement within ten years for a crime involving dishonesty (regardless of whether it was a misdemeanor or felony), that fact can likely be used against you. Other people who know you can be called to testify and asked if you have a reputation for being a truthful person or not. You can also be asked about prior statements you have made which may conflict with your current testimony.
Each of the things above may not be directly relevant to the “ultimate issue” in the trial. That is, whether a witness was convicted of shoplifting 9 years ago does not really have anything to do with whether the defendant cheated on her taxes. But the fact that the witness was convicted of shoplifting shows he is dishonest and therefore provides the jury with information that they can use to assess whether the witness is being truthful when he testifies about whether the defendant cheated on her taxes.
In short, even if a witness has information about a case, it may not be a good idea to have that person testify. If the person has a bad criminal record, has a bad reputation, or has told a number of different stories about what happened, they may not be a good witness. That is, they may try to testify but because they will be shown to be a liar, the jury will tend to disbelieve whatever they say. Thus, anyone who knows something about a case from their personal experience can testify, but depending upon who they are, it may or may not be a good idea.
If you are under investigation, or have been arrested by any law enforcement agency, feel free to contact one of our experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys, for a free initial consultation about your legal rights and possible defenses. In addition, if you have been wrongfully convicted, arrested, imprisoned, maliciously prosecuted, or have suffered some other wrong, feel free to contact one of our experienced Civil Attorneys, for a free initial consultation.