The Zimmerman Trial: The State’s Star Witness
Witnesses in a criminal trial are just that – witnesses. Because they heard or observed something relevant and material to the issues being tried, they, if subpoenaed, have a duty to come forward and testify truthfully. Witnesses come from all walks of life and different backgrounds. The lawyers have a duty and an obligation to interview and “prep” witnesses and it is entirely proper for them to do so. In fact, it would be gross negligence for a lawyer to call a witness who has not been properly prepared for the courtroom experience, except in the rarest of circumstances.
The young woman testifying in the Zimmerman trial today, Rachel Jeantel has been the subject of much ridicule. Witnesses, especially in a nationally televised case such as this one, are understandably nervous. They also bring their feelings into the courtroom, especially when there is a relationship such as the one between Ms. Jeantel and Trayvon Martin. So, emotions, education and life experience, as well as prejudices, all come into play when a witness testifies.
The manner in which a witness in treated by the lawyers and the judge also makes a huge difference. For example, if a lawyer is impolite or antagonistic to a witness, the lawyer should expect the witness to respond accordingly. It is the jury’s job as “finders of fact” to judge the credibility of a witness.
It is important to understand the different roles of the judge and the jury in a trial. The judge is in the courtroom to maintain order and fairness, and to rule on legal matters. Jurors are “finders of fact”. They apply the facts to the law, as the law is explained to them by the trial judge.
It is essential that the trial judge be fair and knowledgeable,
and that the trial judge not favor either side. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for judges in criminal trials, both state and federal, to favor the prosecution. Although judges are required to tell jurors about the presumption of innocence, too many judges rule in ways that undermine the defense, while maintaining an appearance of impartiality in front of the jurors.