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Role of a Witness in a Jury Trial in a Los Angeles Criminal Case

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Jan 21, 2019

A lot of people think this is a simple question.  A witness will come, testify, and a jury decides.  But, obviously, it's more complicated than that especially in a criminal case.  In a criminal case in Los Angeles, or anywhere across the country, the prosecutors have the burden of proof, so they have to put their case on first in a trial and then the defense attorney who is representing the defendant in a criminal case, gets an opportunity to cross-examine those witnesses as well.

Basically, this means a defense attorney can ask questions after the prosecutor and the defense attorney can impeach the witnesses, meaning they can bring up stuff that is in contradiction to what the witnesses are saying and information that supports the defense's theory of what happened in the criminal case.

Jury Instructions

So, when a judge talks to the jury, the judge will basically tell them — and I'm quoting from Jury Instruction of CALCRIM 105 which is what is used in criminal cases at the end of a case — a judge is going to say, you alone must judge the credibility or believability of witnesses.  Basically, what that is saying is that the jury decides whether someone is telling the truth.

The jury decides whether somebody is credible or whether information is missing and the jury decides whether or not the person is innocent or guilty in a criminal case.  It's not the judge.  It's not the defense attorney.  It's not the prosecutor.  The jury makes the final decision and they're going to decide the credibility of a witness.

I get a lot of clients who tell me, well they don't have any evidence, and I'm like, well they've got a witness ready to testify.  That's evidence.  Whether it's good evidence or not, that's a different story.  Whether that witness is credible, believable or whether a jury is going to think that you're guilty, that's a different story.  But if they've got witnesses saying something that if it was true would meet the elements of whatever you're charged with, then they do have evidence.

A judge will also say that in deciding whether testimony is true and accurate, the jury are to look at the witnesses by the same standards — setting aside any bias or prejudice they may have.  Sometimes jurors will come in with a bias or a prejudice in a criminal case.

Meaning, let's say a juror doesn't like police officers or doesn't like people who use guns, and there's a police officer who is going to testify, then those people have to set that bias against police aside and just listen to them as a witness, don't give them any more or any less credibility than any other witness and see if they're believable and if their story makes sense.

So, that's what they're talking about when they're talking about each witness has the same standards as any other witness and that the jury has to set aside their bias.  Some people don't like people who use guns and you have a case where a defendant is alleged to have used a gun during the crime.

That doesn't mean you automatically find them guilty.  You have to look at the witness's testimony, listen to it, see if it's credible, see if it makes sense and then you're in a position to start judging that witness and making determinations.

Witness Credibility

In evaluating a witness's testimony, the Judge will also instruct that you may consider anything that reasonable tends to prove or disprove the proof or accuracy of the testimony.  Among the factors that you may consider are, how well could the witness see, hear or otherwise perceive the things to which the witness has testified; how well was the witness able to remember and describe what happened; what was a witness's behavior while testifying.

I mean, you can see.  You're looking at the witness.  If the witness looks sneaky or the witness is evasive during cross-examination and answering questions, you're able to look at that.  If the witness says something and then that witness is impeached by prior testimony or prior inconsistent statements or by other witnesses who are more credible than them, obviously a jury is going to look at that and make a decision on that.

So, there's all sorts of things that can be used to make a witness look good and credible, and there's all sorts of things that can be used to make a witness look bad.  Another thing that the judge will instruct jurors in a criminal trial is, what was a witness's attitude about the case or about testifying?  Did the witness make a statement in the past that is consistent or inconsistent with his or her testimony?  Did the witness admit to being untruthful?  What is the witness's character for truthfulness?  Has a witness been convicted of a felony?

You as a juror are looking at this witness and seeing what type of a witness they are, so this jury instruction is telling jurors, when this witness testifies in the criminal case — if you see any of these things for the good or for the bad — you're allowed to consider them.

So, if you see that the witness lied in the past and is now trying to change their testimony, you're allowed to consider that, and if the witness has a felony conviction for perjury or if the witness has some other conviction that is brought to your attention and you think that bears on their credibility of a witness, you as a juror are entitled to take that into consideration.

Consult with Our Criminal Lawyers

So, when people are asking questions about, I don't understand what evidence they have, a lot of times they have witnesses, but then the question becomes, are those witnesses credible, believable and reliable.  That's where we get into some of these issues that the jury is going to be instructed on and that jurors are allowed to consider.

So, if you're going to trial on your case and you know that there's witnesses on the case, or even if you're just evaluating your case, I have you come in.  We sit down and go over what witnesses might potentially testify against you, what they would say, and also what information we have to attack their credibility and reliability and show that they're not telling the truth. So, make the appointment today.  We'll sit down and go over everything and see if I can help you with your criminal matter in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office – Information for Witnesses in Criminal Cases

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.