Testimony in Criminal Cases

by | Jan 21, 2019 | Blog Posts, Federal Criminal Defense, NC Criminal Defense, SC Criminal Defense


Testimony in a criminal case – we have written extensively on criminal trials and what constitutes  evidence in a criminal trial.  What remains constant is the use of testimony to provide evidence for either the judge or a jury to consider. Testimony is the backbone of evidence in any trial, but many fail to recognize how technical a process it can be.

In this blog we will talk about testimony, how it is used, how it can be limited and what the purpose of it is.  This is intended for informational purposes only and would not be an adequate substitute for the advice and counsel of a criminal defense lawyer.

What is testimony?

We will tackle this most basic question first.  In a criminal trial, testimony is the process of a witness getting up on the stand, swearing to tell the truth and verbally and demonstratively giving their account of what they experienced, what they know, and what they saw.

What is testimony used for?

In a criminal trial, testimony is used to prove or disapprove alleged facts.  The witnesses tell their story and a fact finder (either a judge or a jury depending on the type of trial) uses that information to figure out what they believe is true and what they believe is not true.

This is how the state or federal government attempts to prove the guilt of a defendant beyond a reasonable doubt.  This is also how a criminal defense attorney attempts to disprove the government’s theory in an attempt to persuade the fact finder of finding their client not guilty.

What are the limits on testimony?

Testimony is supposed to be limited to the first-hand accounts and first-hand knowledge of the person who is testifying. Some exceptions and considerations to remember:

  • A layperson cannot give opinions, but an expert witness can
  • Generally, a person cannot testify about what they heard someone else say, because that would be hearsay
  • Though there are NUMEROUS exceptions to this particular rule
  • Generally, a person has to testify from their own recollection, they cannot simply get on the stand and a prepared statement
  • Lying on the stand during a trial amounts to the crime of perjury
  • Everyone who testifies is subject to cross-examination by the opposing party. Meaning, a witness is required to answer the questions of both sides

These are just some of the many limits on testimony. Hearsay itself is so complex and so convoluted that it takes legal expertise to fully understand it.

How do you get someone to testify?

In a criminal case, someone can come to court and testify through their own free will or the can be compelled to come to court through a subpoena.  In a criminal case the government and the defense have to give each other notice prior to commencement of the trial as to who will potentially be called to testify.

Who has to testify and who is exempt?

This is a more complicated question than it seems. Typically, anyone who has firsthand knowledge of the case can be called upon to testify by either side but several exceptions apply including but not limited to:

  • A defendant in a criminal case can never be made to testify against his or her own free will
  • A witness who is not the defendant generally cannot be made to testify in a way the would subject him or her to criminal liability (they don’t have to incriminate themselves)
  • There are Spousal and Marital exceptions with regard to spouses testifying against each other
  • A person is not expected to testify if he has not been given formal notice to do so

Criminal trials are highly complicated and highly technically. If you have been charged a crime and are in need of criminal trial attorneys in the charlotte area, contact us.  

DISCLAIMER – This forum is intended for general questions and comments about the particular law or topic. Comments are public and are not protected by confidentiality or attorney-client privilege; therefore, they can be used against you in court. Please refrain from revealing your identify or specifics about any actual criminal case. No attorney-client relationship is created in this forum.

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