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.