The Derek Chauvin Trial and the Importance of Witness Testimony

courtroom witness swearing in on bibleWhen describing their cases, some clients commonly tell us that their case should be a “slam dunk” in court because “it’s just my word against hers (or his)”.  When this is said, what they’re suggesting is that if there are no witnesses that come forth, and if each side tells a different story, then how is a Judge or jury to decide? And because the burden of proof is on the prosecution, then any tie goes to the defense and the defendant will be found not guilty.

Other times, clients will express the same belief that their case is a sure thing because they have more witnesses than the prosecution.  When this is said, what they’re suggesting is that the judge or jury will in effect count the witnesses and the side with the most witnesses will emerge victorious.  Although each of these conceptions has some merit to them, they are basically incorrect, as it often works out much differently in actual practice.

How Important is The Quantity of Witnesses?

Not as much as people might think, because it’s really the quality of witnesses that matters most, not the quantity. Judges and juries know that witnesses can sometimes be bought, bribed, or threatened into giving testimony that favors either the prosecution or the defense. Others may have “an axe to grind”. State witnesses who are under investigation for potential crimes, who are presently serving time, or who are facing sentencing can be offered deals that may affect how they testify at trial. Defense witnesses may sometimes be friends, family, or friends of family/friends, who are merely doing the defendant a favor by offering false testimony at trial.  Sometimes, witnesses are not even witnesses at all, even though they might claim to be.

So, is it important who has the most witnesses? Not usually. Often, it’s much more important whether the witness testimony that has been offered is consistent. Having one witness that accurately and believably correlates to the defendant’s version of events is far more compelling than a defendant with ten witnesses who all present versions of events that although somewhat the same, differ in some ways.

How Important is The Demeanor of a Witness?

Many things come into play when a judge or a juror considers whether the testimony that they’re hearing is of value or not while making their determination of guilt or innocence.  One of the most important considerations is demeanor, which means a person’s outward behavior. Although there’s no easy way to ever tell for sure whether people are telling the truth, we’ve all had enough real-life experiences to have a fair idea about whether a person is lying or not.  Do they seem overly nervous, sweaty, or do their eyes dart around? When answering a question, do they give vague answers with little detail?  Do they speak in sentence fragments or repeat questions before answering them? Do they press their fingers to their lips while speaking or play with their hair?  All of these physical displays play a part when forming an opinion about whether a person’s testimony is truthful or untruthful.

How Important is the Identity of the Witness?

The identity of the witness is undoubtedly one of the most important considerations when a judge or juror weighs the importance of witness testimony. In the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the central question is of course whether the police chokehold inflicted upon the arrestee was legal, authorized and necessary in order to maintain control over a handcuffed suspect lying in the street.  In this case, both the prosecution and the defense are acutely aware that witness testimony, especially expert witness testimony, will greatly influence the jury. Some basic categories of witnesses include:

Friends and Family Witnesses

It’s a basic truth that people tend to hang out with their friends and their family members. After all, why would someone congregate with others that they don’t even know? So, it should be of little surprise that when a person is accused of a crime and someone witnessed the event, there’s a good chance it was a friend or relative of that person.

But juries are often suspect of witness testimony when it comes from a relative or friend.  Why? Because people know that their own relatives would probably do almost anything for them and might even lie. The same probably goes for their very close friends.  So sometimes, even though this testimony is 100% truthful, it may not be accepted as such, which can be unfortunate.

Disinterested 3rd Party Witnesses

In many circumstances, witnesses may not know any of the people involved; they are merely bystanders. These are called “disinterested parties” because they’re assumed to not really be interested in who wins or who loses.  They don’t know the accused and are considered by most to be just interested in telling the truth about what they witnessed. They may be a witness to a car accident, a theft, a battery, or a police brutality case. Judges and jurors generally love this kind of witness because they have no “skin in the game” or “axe to grind” and observers are usually inclined to believe what they say. Of course, no one can ever really know for certain what secret prejudices or private agendas lie beneath the surface of a person’s testimony.

Expert Witnesses

Whether in a police brutality trial, a criminal trial or an injury trial, expert witnesses usually play a major role. For instance, in the ongoing trial for the murder of George Floyd, the jury must decide whether the physical force that police officer Derek Chauvin used was reasonable to restrain the arrestee or whether it fell outside of the acceptable and authorized practices taught by the Minneapolis Police Department.  Whether such a trial occurs in Minnesota or in Chicago, Illinois, the laws that govern technical opinions about this type of central question require that such testimony must however only come from a witness who is considered to be an “expert” in the field.

For instance, if a criminal trial involved the question of whether a particular gun fired a particular bullet, the Judge would never allow Aunt Edna to give her opinion about this matter. That is, unless she was considered to be an expert in forensic firearm examination or ballistics. That’s because many scientific and technical matters are simply outside the knowledge of regular people, no matter who they are. Even if a person is a highly educated scientist, the court has no interest in hearing his or her opinion about why a car’s transmission failed; that is a matter that only an expert car mechanic will be allowed to offer court testimony about. But assuming that a witness has been qualified by the trial court as an expert, judges and jurors usually listen intently to such testimony and will place great weight upon it.

Star Witnesses

A Star witness is usually someone whose testimony is considered to be above reproach.  They’re typically not a family member or friend whose testimony may be sometimes considered suspect just due to their closeness or proximity to the defendant. Although they may be an expert witness and they may not be entirely “disinterested” in the case verdict, there is generally no indication that they will benefit in any way from the outcome.

In the George Floyd murder trial, much has been said about how unusual it is that Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo (and other members of the police force) have testified on behalf of the prosecution and in direct conflict with the version of events presented by “one of their own”. Although such a police witness is not completely unprecedented (as police superiors have testified in other cases before), it is indeed still a very rare and unusual occurrence, as police departments across the country (certainly including the Chicago Police) have historically maintained a “Blue Wall of Silence”. This “Blue Wall” as it is called, is a term that refers to an unspoken code of silence between police officers encouraging them to not report on other police officers’ crimes, misconduct, mistakes or police brutality.

Undoubtedly, the Police Chief and other members of the police force will qualify as “star witnesses” in the minds of most members of the jury.  They will likely realize that such testimony doesn’t come easily from fellow police officers and as such, their words will likely be given great weight as they deliberate the verdict.

Speak to Our Experienced Police Brutality Legal Team

Since 1990, former criminal prosecutor Mitchell Sexner and his team of experienced attorneys have fought to defend those who have suffered police brutality at the hands of the Chicago Police and other police departments.  Call us now at (312) 644-0444 for free information about how we can help you and your family through difficult times.

Written by Mitchell S. Sexner Last Updated : April 20, 2021