The Different Types of Witnesses in Court

The Different Types of Witnesses in Court

Last Updated on January 19, 2024 by Asfa Rasheed

Whether you are a victim or a defendant, trials can be overwhelming and nerve-wracking. If you have limited experience with the criminal justice system and the judicial system, you may not even fully understand how they work. 

Criminal trials involve a prosecutor and a defense attorney facing off against each other. The prosecutor is trying to prove that the defendant committed the crime they are accused of and the defense attorney is either trying to prove that they didn’t commit the crime or argue that they did commit the crime, but their actions were justified somehow (think self-defense). 

One way to make these arguments is to call witnesses in court to testify about their observations, things that they are experts in (such as medicine, ballistics, or accident reconstruction), or the character of the victim or defendant. 

If you want to learn more about the different types of witnesses you might encounter in a trial, read on. 

Lay Witness

Also called eyewitnesses, lay witnesses can be anyone who observes something that is related to the case. This is why they are also called eyewitnesses. They testify about their observations. 

They can’t testify about something they didn’t see, though. This is referred to as hearsay. Hearsay occurs when they testify to something that they heard from another person, but didn’t actually witness. 

For example, a lay witness couldn’t get on the witness stand during a trial and say “a friend told me that they saw the defendant at the scene of the crime.” Because the witness didn’t see the defendant with their own eyes, this is hearsay. 

Expert Witness

What is an expert witness? How do you become an expert on something? 

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys may use expert witnesses to share their knowledge about a particular subject and to bolster their case. A prosecutor may use a medical examiner as an expert witness to testify about the cause of death of a crime victim, for example. They can explain how they determined the cause of death and how they ruled out other causes. A medical expert witness is someone who provides expertise on medical issues in court cases.

Just because someone is presented as an expert doesn’t mean that jurors will find them credible, though, and they are subject to cross-examination by the opposing counsel. 

Character Witness 

A character witness testifies to the offender or victim’s character. What this means is that they are there to speak positively about the victim or the defendant. For example, an employer may speak on behalf of a defendant and talk about their good character and how they are not the type of person to commit a crime. 

The usefulness of character witnesses is questionable, as it is simply one person’s opinion about the personality and characteristics of the defendant.  

Secondary Witness 

A secondary witness is used to connect certain pieces of information to establish causality. A secondary witness could be a doctor who can confirm that drugs found in a victim’s system could in fact render them unconscious. 

Secondary witnesses usually don’t have any information about the specifics of the crime that was committed; rather, they are there to provide relevant information to back up arguments from the prosecutor or defense attorney and to show that certain components of the case are feasible. 

Witnesses in Court

If you are facing criminal charges, your attorney may call these different types of witnesses to build your defense. Using expert witnesses, character witnesses, and secondary witnesses may all be part of their case strategy.

Witnesses in court can be very helpful, but they can also be detrimental to your case. This is why having a good attorney is so important. 

Read More: What Are The Two Types Of Criminal Lawyers?

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