There is often a great disparity between what people think they saw and what really occurred. Emotions, nerves, biases and many other extenuating circumstances all play a profound role in dictating how we perceive sights, tastes, sounds, etc. This is not just a phenomenon that causes interesting dilemmas in everyday observations; as our criminal defense attorneys know, this issue often exposes itself in criminal trials, when the prosecution calls a witness who claims to have seen the crime or scenes relevant to the crime in question.
Often, what the witness claims to have seen did not actually take place, or what they claim to have heard was never actually said; frequently, video footage and audio recordings actually refute “eyewitness” testimony.
Does that mean that the mistaken witnesses are maliciously lying? Not necessarily, but it doesn’t have to. You see, there doesn’t have to be malice in order for a witness to be detrimental to the justice system.
Whenever there is reason to question the validity of testimony by a prosecution’s witness in a criminal trial, there is an advantage for the legal defense team. Remember, in our justice system, the defendant does not need to prove his or her innocence – the prosecution needs to prove guilt, and when one of their called witnesses is deemed unreliable, their case may be judged faulty, too.
So far, we have touched on instances in which a witness might honestly be recounting a false story. In other words, a witness might think they’re telling the truth but in reality the truth is something different from what they believe they saw. Let’s say they are related to the purported victim in the case – subconsciously, they may be hoping for closure and answers, and thus they might trick themselves into believing that they saw the defendant commit a crime against their relative, despite the fact that they really only came to the scene after the crime had already been committed.
Another type of unreliable witness is more problematic, yet just as advantageous, once identified, for the legal defense team. While unreliable witnesses sometimes come in the form of being honestly mistaken, they can also come in the form of willful liars. Why might someone claim to be a witness to a crime just to get someone else in trouble? There are many reasons; for instance, perhaps someone had been wronged by the defendant and is taking their court case as an opportunity to “pay back” the defendant for whatever they might have done to the witness in the past. Pettiness is ubiquitous, and it can show its ugly head in the courtroom far more frequently than you might assume.
A witness might also lie, bend the truth or supply hearsay as fact as part of a back-room deal they might have struck up with prosecutors. Sometimes, in what’s known as a “plea deal,” a co-defendant might be promised a lighter sentence (relative to what they otherwise would’ve received) in exchange for cooperation as a witness. In such an instance, a witness must be entirely cooperative with the prosecution, and they might believe that the more information they supply – true or not – the more likely they will be to get off the hook. Case in point: a murder trial currently underway in Miami has the legal defense team up in arms about the reliability of a witness in the case who is making seemingly unfounded remarks about his former co-defendant as part of a plea deal.
The inclusion of witnesses as part of a criminal case is critical to our democratic process – it s a strong testament to “we the people.” However, with power comes responsibility, and when a prosecution’s witness supplies unreliable or flat-out false information in any case, justice is compromised. At such a point, the defense team has the advantage, because faulty evidence in the form of witness testimony is often evidence of faulty, unethical legal strategies employed by the prosecution.
Remember, you are innocent until proven guilty, not innocent until some unreliable witness points at you and calls you a criminal.
If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.