criminal defense attorney

What Does It Mean to Impeach a Witness?

criminal defense attorneyIf you have been charged with a criminal offense, the State of Tennessee (or the U.S. government if you are charged at the federal level) will likely use a variety of evidence to try and convict you of that offense if your case goes to trial. The prosecuting attorney may also call a number of witnesses to the stand to testify against you. You may even have reason to believe that some of those witnesses will lie or “embellish” the truth; however, your hands are tied, right? Not necessarily. Your criminal defense attorney may be able to impeach a witness who is biased against you or has another reason to offer less than credible testimony.

Why Might You Try to Impeach a Witness?

In a criminal trial, the prosecuting attorney must prove thee defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for the jury to return a verdict of guilty. To do that, the prosecutor may introduce physical evidence of the defendant’s guilt, such as contraband found during a search or fingerprints left at the scene of the crime. Witness testimony may also play a vital role in the state’s case against you if you are the defendant. The State may call law enforcement officers, expert witnesses, and lay people to testify. Some of the witnesses may be people you know – an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, a “friend,” a family member. The discovery rules allow your attorney to find out ahead of time what a witness plans to testify to at trial, giving you the opportunity to mount a defense. If it becomes clear that a witness plans to offer testimony that is less than the truth, you will need to try and impeach him/her.  For example, if an ex-girlfriend plans to testify that you were abusive or that you had a drug problem, but neither is the truth, you obviously don’t want a jury to hear that testimony and believe it.

What Does It Mean to Impeach a Witness?

Anytime the State put a witness on the stand, the defense has the right to cross-examine that witness. During cross-examination, your attorney can always challenge the facts; however, impeaching a witness challenges that individual’s underlying credibility. For example, imagine you are charged with dealing drugs and an ex-girlfriend testifies that she saw with large amounts of cash on a regular basis. The implication being that you earned that cash selling drugs. On normal cross-examination your attorney might ask her if she ever actually saw you taking part in a drug transaction. Impeaching her though will attack her underlying credibility in general. In essence, impeaching a witness questions his/her character and suggests to the jury that no matter what the witness says the jury should not believe it.

How Do You Impeach a Witness?

Impeaching a witness can be accomplished using several different tactics, depending on the circumstances and grounds on which you plan to impeach. The most common ways to impeach a witness include:

  • Using prior inconsistent statements – this is a very commonly used impeachment tactic. This involves uses a previous statement the witness made that is inconsistent with what the witness is testifying to now in court. It doesn’t actually matter which version is true, only that the witness has now made inconsistent statements. For example, in the drug dealing example above, imagine that when the witness was still dating the defendant she told the police during an encounter that her boyfriend always carried large amounts of cash because he didn’t trust banks.
  • Showing bias – bias is often shown when there is, or was, a personal relationship between the defendant and the witness. If it can be shown that the witness is holding a grudge or there is any ill will between the two it may be cause for the jury to question the witness’s veracity. Keeping with the drug dealing case, showing that the defendant broke off the relationship with the witness against her wishes may lay the groundwork for bias that leads to impeachment.
  • Prior criminal convictions – the idea is that a witness may have such disdain for the law in general that the oath a witness takes, to tell the truth, has no meaning. State laws differ with regard to what prior convictions can be used to impeach; however, in most states only serious felonies can be used.
  • Character or reputation evidence – this allows the introduction of character or reputation evidence showing the witness is not an honest person. What can be used and how it can be used is governed by state law and can be very complex; however, if you are able to introduce character evidence of untruthfulness it can be a very powerful way to impeach a witness.

Contact a Tennessee Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have additional questions or concerns about impeaching a witness in the State of Tennessee, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced Tennessee criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Contact the team at Bennett, Michael & Hornsby today by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your appointment.

Dinah Michael