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What is a Character Witness?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A character witness is a person who provides testimony about the character of someone involved in a case, usually the defendant. Such witnesses usually need to meet a number of criteria to be allowed to testify. In cases where a witness cannot travel to the court, a deposition or formal letter may be accepted by the court, although the courts usually prefer to have the opportunity to see witnesses presented in court. When asked to serve as a character witness, people should think carefully before accepting, and should ask themselves if they feel that they can truly provide an honest and good reference.

Character witnesses must know the person about whom they are testifying, preferably well, and in some areas, they must live in the same community. Although this is not required, many lawyers also seek out character witnesses with good reputations, because opposing counsel may bring out unsavory details from someone's past as a method of discrediting the testimony.

On the stand, a character witness can testify about a number of things. The witness may talk about the reputation of the person in question to provide information about how he or she is perceived in the community, if this is deemed relevant to the case. The witness can also offer a personal opinion on the character of the person; a character witness might talk about the person's integrity, attention to detail, professional attitude, and so forth to provide more context for the events under discussion.

In addition, a character witness may bring up information about the past, including information about good and bad deeds committed. This may be used in a variety of ways, ranging from a demonstration of someone's good character to an illustration that someone has truly reformed and that this should be taken into account when weighing the facts of the case. The character witness may say, for example, that the defendant used to be in a gang, but has taken steps to get out of the gang community.

In criminal cases, character witnesses are usually allowed. In civil cases, however, they may not always be permitted because they may not be relevant to the case. When a character witness is proposed, opposing counsel does have an opportunity to protest the testimony, and the judge can rule on whether or not the testimony should be admitted in court. During the testimony itself, opposing counsel can also lodge an objection if she or he feels that the witness has strayed beyond the original directions provided by the judge and the court.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By sunnySkys — On May 13, 2012
@starrynight - I understand where you're coming from, but I think you're wrong. A defendant's character is totally relevant to a criminal investigation! I know there are some crimes where intent is an element of the crime, like first-degree murder. You have to have committed the murder with intention to actually kill the person.

So in a murder case, the defendant's character could play a big role in determining whether they meant to commit the act or not. It's much more likely that an upstanding citizen with no criminal record might kill someone accidentally or in the heat of the moment. However, I think someone with a very checkered past is more likely to have killed someone with intent!

By starrynight — On May 13, 2012

@JaneAir - I'm sure you were a lot more comfortable acting as a character reference for someone who is actually a good person! It would be so awkward if the honest answers to the interviewer's questions were all negative!

Anyway, I have mixed feelings about using characters witnesses as a Federal witness. I don't really think a person's character is relevant to a criminal investigation. The jury should base their decision of innocence or guilt on hard evidence, not the fact that the defendant is considered by someone to be a "good person."

I can think of a ton of cases of serial killers that were active in their communities and it came as a surprise to everyone they were criminals!

By JaneAir — On May 12, 2012

I've never served as a character courtroom witness. However, I have had a similar experience. A good friend of mine that I've known for over a decade had to get a government security clearance for her job.

As part of the security clearance process, they basically interview every single person you know, especially people who have known you for a long time. Since I've known this person since we were in high school, I had to do an interview.

It was nice, because my friend is an awesome person, so I felt completely comfortable doing an interview about her character!

By OeKc05 — On May 12, 2012

My pastor recently had to write a character witness letter for a girl who made some bad decisions and wound up in legal trouble. She had stolen from the company she worked for, and she ended up in jail.

Our pastor knew that she had done plenty of work for charitable causes, and she was an all-around pleasant person. He also knew that she was truly sorry for what she had done, and the company might not have found out about her crime had she not confessed it to them herself, which showed that she was taking initiative.

However, our pastor did not know about her history of stealing. This came out at the trial, and when it did, it kind of rendered his character witness letter useless.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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