This 91st Edition of Justice For All is about witnesses at a criminal jury trial.
Many different types of people could be called as a witness at a jury trial. An individual who observes a crime or has relevant information about a crime is often asked or compelled to be a witness. People who are victims of a crime are regularly called as witnesses if they are still alive and able to recall the events accurately. Law enforcement officials who investigate a crime can expect to be called as a witness as part of their duties. Individuals with special knowledge in an area relevant to an issue at trial can be called as expert witnesses. Defendants can call witnesses to aid in their defense and can also testify themselves, although if they choose not to call witnesses or testify that decision cannot be held against them or used as an inference of guilt.
Witnesses at a criminal jury trial are often compelled to testify through a subpoena. A subpoena is a court order that requires someone to appear and give testimony or be held in contempt of court. The subpoena may also require the witness to bring certain documents with them. This is called a subpoena duces tecum. There are a limited number of ways to quash or invalidate a subpoena such as if it’s issued for the purpose of harassing someone or is unduly burdensome.
Every witness is always placed under oath before they begin their testimony. This means the witness faces the penalty of perjury if he or she knowingly makes a false statement of material fact or falsely denies knowledge of material facts. Any witness who commits perjury is guilty of a class “D” felony unless they retract the false statement in the proceedings where it was made before the false statement has substantially affected the proceedings.
Because witnesses play such an important role at trial, each witness’s credibility is always a central issue and is often in dispute. This is especially true when two witnesses, both testifying under oath, give contradictory versions of the same event or events. A jury at is the fact finder in the case which means they have to judge the credibility of witnesses and determine who is telling the truth. The Iowa State Bar Association (“ISBA”) has a model jury instruction that many trial judges adopt and provide to juries to help them in their role of judging witness credibility.
The ISBA’s model jury instruction on credibility of witnesses says in part, “In determining the facts, you may have to decide what testimony you believe. You may believe all, part or none of any witness's testimony. There are many factors which you may consider in deciding what testimony to believe, for example:
1. Whether the testimony is reasonable and consistent with other evidence you believe.
2. Whether a witness has made inconsistent statements.
3. The witness's appearance, conduct, age, intelligence, memory and knowledge of the facts.
4. The witness's interest in the trial, their motive, candor, bias and prejudice.”
Many trials are won or lost based on how credible the jury finds the witnesses and their testimony. If you are asked or compelled to be a witness in a jury trial you will be playing a fundamental role in justice for all.