What is a Material Witness?

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  • Written By: Mary Elizabeth
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 February 2020
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Witnesses play an important part in the legal system. Witnesses are people who testify under oath through submission of a document to the court, through a deposition, or by means of testifying in court, and may include plaintiffs and defendants. There are a number of different categories of witness, and material witness is one such type. A material witness is one whose testimony is deemed essential to the outcome of the proceedings; that is, his or her testimony is or “material” importance.

Witnesses are characterized in several ways: by their expertise, by the portion of the trial in which they testify, and by the category of testimony they supply, for example. A material witness may also fall into any of these categories, though some are more likely than others. The two categories of expertise are “lay” and “expert.” A lay witness is an ordinary person, while an expert witness is someone with specialized knowledge in a particular field. After a conviction has been entered, there are a special group of witnesses, called sentencing witnesses or punishment witnesses, who appear at the sentencing hearing held to determine the punishment to be given.


Within the trial, witnesses can supply various types of testimony. There are what are known as fact witnesses, who speak to what happened in a particular case. There may also be character witnesses who have specific knowledge about a person’s morality, honesty, and reputation, which may be germane to making a judgment. Outcry witnesses are a special group of witnesses: adults who have heard a child’s “outcry” about suffering abuse. An outcry witness is obligated by law to report such abuse.

Because the testimony of a material witness is deemed to be important to justice being done, there are special rules with regard to obtaining their testimony. First, the court schedule must be reasonably altered to allow the witness’s testimony, even if that means extending the trial by granting a continuance. Second, a material witness can be compelled to testify, even if he or she does not wish to.

In addition, if prosecutors have reason to believe that a material witness in a criminal proceeding may flee, they may obtain a warrant for that person’s arrest and detain that person, under a 1984 federal statute. The warrant must be approved by a judge, and the witness is entitled to a hearing to determine bond and, if necessary, a court-appointed attorney.

A detained witness may request a deposition, that is, sworn testimony collected outside of a court and reduced to written form for later use in a court. Attorneys represent the parties to the case at the deposition, and a court reporter records a transcript of the proceedings. According to Title 18 of the U.S. Code, the court “may” discharge the material witness after the deposition transcript has been signed under oath.


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Post 3

@SarahGen-- I agree with you about the definition of a material witness being broad. Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, many terrorism suspects have been arrested and detained as "material witnesses." I think that this has been possible because of the broad definition of the term. Some of these arrests have been controversial. Some detainees have actually sued the government for arresting people as material witnesses without knowledge that they have information material to a case.

So there are some concerns about the misuse of the First Judiciary Act of 1789 which allows material witnesses to be detained. I think this is something that needs to be discussed and clarified by authorities.

Post 2

@SteamLouis-- The definition of a material witness is a fairly broad concept. It's simply someone who has information material to a case. This information is important and will influence the outcome of the criminal proceedings. Like the article said, different types of witnesses could be considered material witnesses.

As for why a material witness would flee, I suppose there are different possible causes. For example, if the testimony of the material witness is going to harm someone close to that witness, he or she may not want to testify.

Post 1

I'm still a bit confused about material witnesses. So are material witnesses usually fact witnesses? Why would a material witness want to flee or avoid testifying in court?

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