What Makes A Good Eye Witness Testimony?

What sort of information can a good eye witness testimony provide? Here are some ideas on what to keep in mind as an eyewitness to a crime.

Eyewitness testimony can be a crucial part of the prosecuting attorney's case against an accused criminal, or can be used to exonerate innocent people. Having a competent person in court who can testify to precise details at the time of a crime can easily sway a case one way or the other.

Even though eyewitness testimony can be challenged vigorously by opposing counsel, ultimately it is the judge or the jury who will weigh this evidence against other pieces of the puzzle to determine what indeed happened at the time and place in question.

But what qualities make up a good eyewitness? Many people have been lead to believe that an eyewitness merely identifies a face in a line-up or some other minor detail of a crime. In reality, a good eyewitness can help eliminate suspicion as much as create it. Here are some things to keep in mind if you should witness a crime yourself.

1. Physical descriptions. This may appear to be the most obvious element of eyewitnessing, but it can get very complicated. What did you observe about the suspect's overall appearance? Facial features are the standard expectations- hair color, eye color, complexion, body hair, etc. Such information is helpful, but what can be even more helpful is the physical information that can eliminate suspects. Did you notice any tattoos, and what did they look like? There may be quite a few dark-haired bearded Caucasians in the area, but very few with a Spiderman tattoo. Did you notice any deformities- missing fingers, deformed limbs, missing teeth, scars? Was there anything significant about their walk- limping, unusual steps, signs of injury? Eyewitness testimony is notoriously 'flexible' when notes from different witnesses are compared, but if the same physical characteristics are noticed, it may help narrow down the list of suspects considerably.

2. Mannerisms and accents. If you are caught in a bank robbery or store holdup, you may not be in a position to see the suspect(s), but you can still be an earwitness. Listen for any abnormalities in their voices- stuttering, speech impediments, slurring of words. Also, pay attention to accents- do they sound foreign? Try to determine the nationality of the accents you hear. If you hear regional dialects, try to place the area where the accent is most common. Southerners can usually distinguish Northern accents and vice-versa. Notice the rate of speech and any other vocal quality that is distinctive- raspiness, shrillness, nasality.

3. Clothing. Many experienced criminals carry a change of clothes with them when committing a crime, or will strip off any identifying clothing as quickly as possible. You should still make a note of everything a suspect was wearing at the time of the crime. If you notice a logo or name of a sports team, be sure to mention that in your report. If you can't remember precisely what the suspect was wearing, then at least remember what type of clothing it was- casual streetwear, designer label, dirty, old, torn, etc. Such information can give detectives ideas on where to begin searching for suspects.

4. Accessories and accomplices. Was the suspect carrying anything- a bag or container, a gun/weapon, articles of clothing? Did they appear to drop anything near the area? Were they alone, or did they meet up with other people? Was there an escape vehicle ready? What did it look like, and where did it go? The main reason that eyewitness testimony can be shaky is the speed of most crimes. A purse-snatcher can steal a purse and be gone from sight in seconds. Adding to this situation is the upset victim, who may draw attention away from the suspect through her reactions. If you find yourself in a position to see a crime occur, try to become a human video recorder. Watch the suspect from the moment you notice the crime to the point they completely disappear from view.

5. Familiarity. Few criminals live in a vacuum- they do shop in stores, work in local factories and eat in public restaurants. If you witness a robbery at your neighborhood grocery store, chances are you may have seen the suspect before. You may have worked with them in the past, or have gone to school with them. There is always a chance that you may have more information on a suspect than you first realize, so spend some time searching your memory. If you can make the connection, share this information with the police immediately. The sooner law enforcement can attach a name to a face, the better chance of making the arrest.

After you have contributed your eyewitness testimony to the detectives working the case, you will want to keep your observations clear in your mind. Chances are pretty good that you will be called into to testify at a criminal trial. You may have to give a deposition, which basically means officially recording your earlier report in a court-recognized document. Both sides of the case will have a copy of this document, and the attorney for the other side may look for discrepancies and mistakes in your statements.

During the actual court proceeding, you should be asked to repeat the information as you remember it, prompted by questions from the prosecutor. Once they are finished with direct testimony, the defense may challenge your answers. These questions may point out lapses in your testimony, or suggest that you were not telling the complete truth. They also may suggest that your memory or eyesight was faulty at the time of the incident. Try not to take these questions too personally- they are standard defense strategies. If you have to concede a point or two about your testimony, you have not done anything wrong. Testifying is a stressful and uncomfortable situation for anyone, and you may feel rattled or nervous. This is perfectly natural. Once your testimony is completely delivered, you are now free to leave the courtroom. Take some time to recover your bearings before returning to your 'normal' life. You didn't ask to be an eyewitness to a crime, but you did perform your civic duty to the best of your ability. Take comfort in that fact.

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