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What is a Star Witness?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 16, 2024

In legal proceedings, a star witness is a witness who provides major and crucial information in a criminal case. In some instances, a case may have several star witnesses, and their testimony may cinch a conviction or acquittal, especially when handled by a skilled lawyer. The testimony of star witnesses is often a topic of interest for the general public as well, especially in high profile cases, and in open courtrooms, there may be a number of bystanders present to listen to the testimony of a star witness.

A witness is someone who provides information in a court of law which is designed to shed light on a case. Juries and judges weigh the information provided by witnesses and submitted evidence to reach a decision in a trial, making the testimony of any witness important in the overall success of a trial. The testimony of a star witness, however, may serve as the basis for building and presenting a case, making a star witness crucial to the outcome of a trial.

All sorts of people can serve as star witnesses. In cases about corruption of government agencies, for example, a star witness might be a former employee who witnessed such corruption firsthand. Star witnesses may also have seen murders or other crimes, or they might be in possession of incriminating or exonerating information about a defendant. Many lawyers try to keep the identities of their star witnesses under wraps until the last minute, so that their testimony is a surprise, preventing the other side from preparing.

Typically, lawyers groom a star witness carefully before putting him or her on the stand. They may go over the testimony in a mock-courtroom, showing the witness what cross examination will feel like, and asking questions similar to those which might be used in court. The witness may be encouraged to practice vital testimony, and the legal team will typically also advise the witness on how to dress and act in court for the right impression.

When a star witness testifies in a high profile case, many news agencies comment on it, reporting the testimony if the trial is public and providing analysis of it. The performance of star witnesses will also be considered in any media postmortem of the trial, with analysts speculating on how the witness impacted the trial outcome. On occasion, the testimony of a star witness is also quite sensational, attracting a great deal of public speculation and comment.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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 pastanaga — On Jun 29, 2011

I thought that it was impossible to keep your witnesses a secret from the other lawyers during the trial. Don't they have to be open and up front about it and provide a list of all the people they are intending to call to witness?

I know very little about law, so I think I got that out of a movie or something. For a long time I watched a lot of legal shows, although they seem to have become less popular now. They were always calling secret star witnesses to the trial.

I particularly liked Boston Legal and was sad when it ended. It was all the best parts of Ally McBeal and The Practice mixed together with its own kind of intelligence.

By pleonasm — On Jun 29, 2011

Calling a person like this a star witness is fitting for more than one reason. Even though I think it was originally intended to mean the witness that had the best testimony, or the key witness to the case, often it now means the more modern sense of the word star, i.e. celebrity.

If a court case is particularly interesting to the public then a starwitness might be exploited for all kinds of reasons. They might be an emotional appeal to the jury or the public for example.

Even though a court case is supposed to be made on logical terms, that is often not what happens.

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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