Definitions

beared witness

Witness

[wit-nis]
A witness is someone who has firsthand knowledge about a crime or dramatic event through their senses (e.g. seeing, hearing, smelling, touching), and can help certify important considerations to the crime or event. A witness who has seen the event firsthand is known as an "eye-witness". Witnesses are often called before a court of law to testify in trials.

A subpoena commands a person to appear. In many jurisdictions it is compulsory to comply, to take an oath, and tell the truth, under penalty of perjury. It is used to compel the testimony of witnesses in a trial. Usually it can be issued by a judge or by the lawyer representing the plaintiff or the defendant in a civil trial or by the prosecutor or the defense attorney in a criminal proceeding.

A witness who specializes in an area of study relevant to the crime is called an expert witness. Scientists and doctors are often called to give expert witness testimony.

Eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness testimony is generally presumed to be better than circumstantial evidence. Studies have shown, however, that individual, separate witness testimony is often flawed, and parts of it can be meaningless. This can occur because of a person's faulty observation and recollection, because of a person's bias, or because the witness is lying. If several people witness a crime it is probative to look for similarities in their collective descriptions to substantiate the facts of an event, keeping in mind the contrasts of individual descriptions.

One study involved an experiment in which subjects acted as jurors in a criminal case. Jurors heard a description of a robbery-murder, then a prosecution argument, then an argument for the defense. Some jurors heard only circumstantial evidence, others heard from a clerk who claimed to identify the defendant. In the first case, 18% percent found the defendant guilty, but in the second, 72% found the defendant guilty (Loftus 1988). Lineups, where the eyewitness picks out a suspect from a group of people in the police station, are often grossly suggestive, and give the false impression that the witness remembered the suspect. In another study, students watched a staged crime. An hour later they looked through photos. A week later they were asked to pick the suspect out of lineups. 8% of the people in the lineups were mistakenly identified as criminals. 20% of the innocent people whose photographs were included were mistakenly identified (University of Nebraska 1977). Weapon focus effects in which the presence of a weapon impairs memory for surrounding details is also an issue.

Another study looked at sixty-five cases of "erroneous criminal convictions of innocent people." In 45% of the cases, eyewitness mistakes were responsible (Borchard p. 367).

The formal study of eyewitness memory is usually undertaken within the broader category of cognitive processes — the different ways in which we make sense of the world around us. We do this by employing the mental skills at our disposal such as thinking, perception, memory, awareness, reasoning and judgment. Although cognitive processes can only be inferred and cannot be seen directly, they all have very important practical implications within a legal context.

If one were to accept that the way we think, perceive, reason and judge is not always perfect, then it becomes easier to understand why cognitive processes and the factors influencing these processes are studied by psychologists in matters of law; not least because of the grave implications that this imperfection can have within the criminal justice system.

The study of witness memory has dominated this realm of investigation and for a very good reason because as Huff and Rattner note: the single most important factor contributing to wrongful conviction is eyewitness misidentification.

Other definitions

  • In the Judeo-Christian religious context, the concept of a forensic witness occurs widely in the Old Testament and the New Testament, denoted in the Greek texts by the term μαρτυς, martyr (see e.g. Alison A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness, ISBN 9780521609340).
  • In another sense there are witnesses of unusual phenomena such as mystic-religious-spiritual, paranormal, chamanic and UFO phenomena. In such experiences those witnesses/subjects are not only occular witnesses but in a broad sense "perceptors" and sometimes also considered subjects suffering hallucinations (schizophrenia sufferer), illusions and other psychopathological and perceptual definitions but not necessarily un-true or un-real unless the testimony seems to be non-logical, non-coherent or non-real or non-sense.
  • A certain number of witnesses are legally required to be present at weddings and certain other official events, and may have to sign a register as evidence of the event having taken place. Many other legal documents require witnesses to signatures; the witness does not need to read the document, but does need to see it being signed. The witness should not be party to the transaction, so in the case of wills, the witness should not be one of the beneficiaries.
  • In another sense witnesses also help out the scientific community, such as persons who observe natural disasters and other phenomenon. Witnesses and their testimony in these events are extremely valuable, as scientists and meteorologists rarely have the needed equipment to record these events from an up-close-and-personal perspective. In extreme cases, like the study of extraterrestrials and unidentified flying objects, witness testimony may be the only source of information; consequently, said events tend to be met with speculation and doubt.
  • Source texts or other references in literature which contribute evidence that what forms a partially complete or missing text may have taken in its original state can be referred to as witnesses.

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