Have you ever wondered about those people who take the stand in trials and talk about how honest or peaceful someone is?
As a contract drafter and casual observer of the legal system, I used to be confused about what exactly these “character witnesses” were all about. After doing some research, their purpose makes a lot more sense – though it’s still controversial.
I’ll explain when they’re used, how they’re chosen, and what they can (and can’t) say. I’ll also compare them to old-fashioned “character letters” and discuss some notable cases.
By the end, you’ll have a better understanding of this particular aspect of trials.
First, what exactly is a character witness?
They are the people who testify in court about the defendant’s character and reputation. This is different from a written character letter, which just makes claims about someone on paper.
Character witnesses are typically used when the defendant’s character itself is central to determining guilt or innocence in a case.
For example: In the defamation trial of Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, character witnesses were important because the personal character of both parties was a key factor in the case. One witness was Keenan Wyatt, who has been Depp’s on-set audio technician since the 1990s. Wyatt testified as a character witness for Johnny Depp, stating that he did not see Depp shout at Heard during a specific flight, which Heard had claimed as an instance of abuse.
This testimony supported Depp’s character.
Attorneys don’t choose just anyone to be a character witness. It needs to be someone who has known the defendant for a long time and in contexts relevant to the trait at hand. A coworker testifying about the defendant’s office behavior would be far more meaningful than a neighbor talking about his gardening habits.
When on the stand, witnesses stick to relevant traits and provide concrete examples, not just vague opinions. “The defendant always told little white lies around the office” is far more persuasive than “The defendant seemed like a trustworthy guy to me.”
Witnesses also can’t speculate directly on guilt or innocence – just provide useful context.
An interesting question is how written character letters compare to live testimony.
Letters are acceptable. But, when it comes to verifying claims and gathering proofs, in-person witnesses are often preferred as they are cross-examined and compelled to support their statements.
My sense is that compelling live testimony likely holds more weight in swaying a jury one way or another.
Preparing a character witness is crucial so they aren’t derailed on the stand. The most important things are to coach them on important traits, be ready for questions, and stay cool.
I can only imagine how nerve-wracking it would be testifying with someone’s freedom at stake!
Character witnesses have always been a touchy subject.
Opponents say it’s too subjective and plays on people’s emotions. But supporting people say it provides helpful insights about the defendant’s character that can’t be ignored.
I think, truth is somewhere in the middle.
So, it’s definitely a complex issue, but still important to know their role in order to understand how our legal system works.
The next time I see a character witness take the stand on TV, I’ll view them with new eyes!