Different Types of Witnesses in Court

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Everyone, even people who aren’t legal professionals, knows that it takes a lot for attorneys to win a case. From vetting their client and opposition to conducting legal research to gathering evidence to making their argument in court — the list goes on and on and on. Law is incredibly complex and nuanced, but ultimately, winning a case boils down to one key thing — persuasion. Legal professionals need to persuade a judge and/or jury that their argument is the right one, and they need to be more persuasive than their opposition if they want to win. 

Because the outcome of a case is essentially determined by who is more persuasive, attorneys need to use every possible tool of persuasion, and one of the very best and most important tools is witness testimony. 

One definition of a witness is an individual who testifies under oath in trial and has “knowledge about matters relevant to the case.” Though many people might think that “knowledge” means eyewitness accounts, eye witnesses are actually only one of three types of witnesses that may be called to testify in court. The other two types of witnesses are character witnesses and expert witnesses. Though they all bring important first-hand knowledge that can make or break a case, the knowledge they bring varies depending on what kind of witness they are. Here is how these three types of witnesses differ from each other and what role they each play in court.

Eyewitness (lay witness)

Eyewitnesses are usually the witnesses we see in film and television court trials, and that’s because they’re often the most persuasive. An eyewitness, also called a lay witness or factual witness, is a witness in court who may have some first-hand knowledge about the facts of the case, whether that’s through direct participation or observation.

Eyewitnesses testify based on what they saw or heard. For example, in a criminal defense case, eyewitnesses are usually people who witnessed the crime taking place. Eyewitnesses are often asked questions about specific details of an incident, like where it happened and who was involved. In short, they’re called to answer the what of the case.

Because eyewitness testimony is supposed to help lay out the facts of a case, it’s usually one of the most convincing pieces of evidence in a trial. That being said, it can be unreliable. Eyewitness testimony relies on a person’s memory, which can be influenced by a number of factors like stress and confirmation bias. Because eyewitness testimony is one of the most persuasive forms of evidence, when it is wrong, it can have huge consequences. In fact, research has found that 75% of false convictions are caused by inaccurate eyewitness statements. Still, eyewitnesses are one of the best tools of persuasion that attorneys have at their disposal, which is why they tend to be the most common witnesses in court. As the saying goes, “seeing is believing.”

  • Eyewitnesses are ordinary people who have first-hand knowledge of the case, usually because they witnessed the event taking place or participated in it in some way. 
  • Eyewitnesses testify on what they observed to help the judge and jury understand the actual facts of the case.
  • Eyewitness testimony tends to be one of the most persuasive forms of evidence because eyewitnesses testify on the facts, or what they saw with their own eyes.

Expert witness in court

An expert witness is another type of witness in court who also has knowledge about matters relevant to the case, though that knowledge does not stem from first-hand experiences. As the name implies, expert witnesses are experts in a field “whose opinion may help a jury make sense of the factual evidence of a case.”  Expert witnesses may be brought to court in a variety of different cases, such as family law, personal injury, medical malpractice, and criminal law. For example, an expert witness may be a doctor who is brought into a personal injury case to testify about the extent of the person’s injuries to help the court determine how much should be paid out in damages. 

Unlike eyewitnesses, expert witnesses must meet strict standards in order to be considered an “expert.” There are four admissibility standards an individual must meet in order to provide expert testimony: qualifications, reliability, helpfulness, and foundation. Locating witnesses that meet these standards can be challenging, but a public and private records database can help by providing key information about qualifications, like workplace records and professional license records. 

Though expert witnesses may not be as convincing as eyewitnesses, they still play a huge role in the outcome of a case by helping the court understand why certain facts matter. 

  • Expert witnesses are experts in a certain matter that relates to the case and testify to the court about their understanding of the matter based on their expert knowledge.
  • Expert witnesses need to pass strict admissibility standards, such as having proper proper qualifications, in order to be allowed to provide expert testimony.
  • Expert witness testimony helps the court make sense of the facts of the case and understand why the facts of the case matter one way or another.

Character witness

Character witnesses are individuals who know the victim, defendant, or someone else involved in a case and can testify on that individual’s specific character traits. Specifically, they will testify on good or bad traits in a person or the reputation of that person in the community.  They are a type of witness in court who is usually called for criminal cases to help the jury decide whether the accused actually committed the offense, or if they were already convicted, which sentence to impose. For example, if someone is being prosecuted for money laundering and pleads innocent, a character witness could be a family member of the defendant that testifies on the defendant’s good traits, like honesty, to help convince the jury that the accused isn’t actually guilty. 

Unlike both expert witness testimony and eyewitness testimony that lay out and analyze the factual evidence, character witness testimony provides supporting evidence in the form of a narrative, which is inherently biased. A character witness is not there to answer the what or the why. Instead, they answer the who. 

Though character witnesses often discuss background information on individuals, it is for the purpose of telling a story of the kind of person an individual is to persuade the court of a person’s character, not of the facts. While character witness testimony does not lay out factual evidence and is therefore typically not as persuasive, it is nonetheless valuable evidence that can be used as a powerful tool of persuasion.

  • Character witnesses are brought in to testify on the character of someone involved in the case based on their personal relationship to that person. 
  • Character witnesses can be family members, friends, bosses, teachers, or someone else, but they need to know the person they’re testifying about well.
  • Character witnesses provide the court with insight into who an individual is, rather than providing information on specific details of the case. 

If you’re a legal professional needing to locate witnesses, get started with Tracers to see how public and private records can help you find the right witnesses for your case.