Using Impeachment to Attack Criminal Trial Witnesses in Pennsylvania

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A proper defense must always consider calling a defense witness or even the accused if the prosecution has presented compelling evidence. Calling a defense witness, however, isn’t an easy decision because this person will have to face cross examination by the prosecution. While a good defense attorney can protect the witness with objections, a judge may overrule those objections and require the person to answer.

If your attorney plans on calling a witness at trial, he must thoroughly review their background to make sure that this decision doesn’t ultimately hurt the case more than it helps it. While an accused’s character is never admissible at trial unless the defense offers it into evidence, there are separate rules that cover the impeachment of a witness’s credibility which includes the accused. Keep in mind there are different rules of evidence in state and federal courts in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania rules of evidence allow the prosecution and the defense to impeach the credibility of any witness (including the accused) through various channels. Impeachment can expose a witness’s partiality, motive, prior convictions, character for untruthfulness, prior inconsistent statements, as well as a person’s inability to recall certain facts. There are eight categories of impeachment:

  1. Competency – a witness’s ability to communicate, understand the consequences of lying, recall, or proceed what is occurring;
  2. Partiality – a witness’s bias, prejudice, financial interest, or corruption;
  3. Motive – a reason explaining a witness’s testimony;
  4. Prior inconsistent statements – a witness’s earlier statements that are inconsistent with the witness’s trial testimony;
  5. Prior convictions – a witness’s convictions for crimes of dishonesty and false statements that help prove the witness’s untruthfulness;
  6. Untruthful character – a witness’s reputation for untruthfulness;
  7. Untruthful acts – when a witness offers reputation testimony as to his or her truthful character, the reputation witness may be asked about the primary witness’s acts or untruthfulness;
  8. Contradiction – a witness’s testimony may be contradicted by physical evidence, other accounts, or by witness’s inconsistent conduct.

It’s often necessary to call a defense witness especially in cases involving illegal guns or drugs where an arresting officer claims that a person was involved in illegal activity or had possession of some type of contraband. Even if a witness has credibility issues the defense can still call this person but needs to be prepared to rehabilitate the witness after the prosecution attacks their credibility. If you have any questions about impeachment or are charged with a crime call Gregory J. Spadea of the Law Offices of Spadea & Associates, LLC at 610-521-0604.

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