How Important is the Victims Testimony in a Criminal Case?
One popular myth that appears to persist in the minds of the general population is that there can be no prosecution for a crime if the victim of that crime does not want to proceed with the prosecution and/or does not wish to press charges. Prosecutors can – and regularly do – proceed in prosecuting a defendant even if the victim is not cooperative. There are other examples where an uncooperative victim results in the prosecution dismissing the criminal case. However, suppose that a victim is cooperative and does testify at your trial – how important is that victims testimony in a criminal case, to the judge’s or jury’s deliberations? The answer can vary widely from case to case.
Consideration #1: How Believable is the Victim?
The overriding consideration that a judge or jury will make in evaluating the victims testimony in a criminal case is how believable the victim’s testimony is. A judge or jury can (and often does) overlook minor factual inconsistencies and excuse poor eye contact and mumbling speech if the judge or jury truly feels as if the victim’s testimony is truthful. Unfortunately, there are no clear criteria by which all judges and all juries assess believability and truthfulness. A victim who is consistent concerning the important and critical details of the crime, whose testimony is corroborated by other witnesses and/or evidence, whose emotions appear genuine, who admits and explains inconsistencies or bizarre behavior (such as why he or she did not immediately report the crime to police) will generally be more believable.
Consideration #2: What Motivates the Victim?
The judge or jury also deserves to know what motive(s) the victim has in testifying for the prosecution. A victim who appears to be out for vengeance may not be particularly helpful to the prosecution. Such a motivation weighs heavily against the victim’s believability and credibility. Other motivations for testifying that can negatively impact the victim’s credibility include testifying because he or she was told to do so by the prosecution (this can suggest that the victim is simply parroting what the prosecution has told him or her to say). Finally, although rare, a victim who is testifying as a means of gaining some fame, notoriety, and/or public sympathy will also likely viewed skeptically by the judge or jury and, hence, his or her testimony will play a small role in the finding of guilt, if indeed there is such a finding.
Consideration #3: What is the Victim’s Fault?
Although perhaps people should not think this way (or perhaps they should?), a victim who is seen as causing or contributing to his or her own calamity will find that his or her testimony will play very little of a positive role in the criminal prosecution. For example, suppose that a victim is seriously injured when he or she is beaten up for failing to make a delivery of drugs on time. This victim will likely be seen as playing some role in his or her own injuries and his or her testimony will likely play a small role in convicting the defendant(s).
Putting It Together
When the crime victim’s testimony is not persuasive or does not play an important role in the case due to credibility or other issues, the strength of the prosecution’s case must depend on other witnesses or evidence. In some extreme cases, the prosecution may elect not to have the victim testify but will instead rely upon other witnesses and evidence to build its case. If a defendant knows ahead of time that the crime victim’s testimony will present difficulties for the prosecution, this can often be leveraged to obtain a favorable plea agreement with the prosecution. Experienced lawyers should be consulted to make the case favorable.