Witness Competency

October 22, 2011

Long before Robinson and Daubert subjected expert witnesses to a judicial pre-screening process, Texas judges were acting as gate-keepers as to fact witnesses on the basis of competency. In fact, legal history inTexas is replete with many grounds to exclude witnesses due to incompetency, most of which have long-since been abandoned or repealed, such as religion, race and criminal convictions. Two exclusionary grounds remain, however, in the current rules of evidence – witnesses who are mentally incompetent and children.

According to Rule 601(a) of the Texas Rules of Evidence, the following witnesses shall be incompetent to testify in any proceeding: (1) persons “in an insane condition of mind at the time when they are offered as a witness, or who, in the opinion of the court, were in that condition when the events happened of which they are called to testify,” and (2) children “who appear not to possess sufficient intellect to relate transactions with respect to which they are interrogated.”   

The Burden of Proof:  The mandatory prohibitory language of the rule would suggest that before a party may offer a child or mentally challenged adult as a witness, testimonial competency must first be proven.  This approach would be consistent with the burden of proof required in expert witness gate-keeping, i.e., that the burden lies with the party proffering the witness. However, with regard to witness competency, the rule has been applied in quite the opposite manner. With one exception, the burden of proof belongs to the objecting party, not the offering party, to prove incompetency to testify at trial. The only exception occurs when the witness has previously been declared insane or incompetent. In that situation, a presumption against competency exists, which may be rebutted with evidence of competency (but the mere fact that a witness has previously been declared insane or incompetent will not automatically render the witness’ testimony incompetent).

The Standard:  The three elements to consider when determining testimonial competency are:  (1) the competence of the witness to observe intelligently the events in question at the time of the occurrence; (2) the capacity of the witness to recollect the events, and (3) the capacity of the witness to narrate the facts.  With regard to the third element, a witness must be able: (1) to understand the questions that are asked, (2) to frame intelligent answers to those questions, and (3) to understand the moral responsibility to tell the truth. 

Notably missing from this analysis is any requirement that the testimony be consistent, and it is important to keep that in mind.  Inconsistencies in testimony will not render a witness incompetent.  For example, in Rodriguez v. State, even though the witness, an Alzheimer’s patient, couldn’t remember her own age, the day of the week she was testifying, or that she had been attacked with a knife instead of a pistol, she was still held competent to testify because in other ways her testimony provided a “lucid and purposeful” account of the events surrounding the robbery and assault. Furthermore, all of the witness’s testimony was independently corroborated by either circumstantial or direct evidence. Most frequently, this issue arises in the context of young child witnesses whose testimony can often be inconsistent and confusing. The fact that a child’s testimony is confusing and inconsistent may make it less credible, but it does not render the testimony incompetent. 

Child witnesses are also frequently scrutinized for their ability to understand the moral responsibility to tell the truth.  Because there is no absolute cut-off as to the age in which a child is deemed incompetent to testify as a matter of law, many child witnesses may be too young to articulate or even understand the meaning of a legal oath. Nevertheless, a child may demonstrate competency if he or she has an understanding that it is wrong to lie and is impressed with the need to be truthful. (In those circumstances, a child witness would not be required to take a formal oath prior to testifying.)

Applicability of the Rule:  While at first blush, TRE 601(a) may seem to apply only to the mentally disabled and youngsters, the rule actually has a broad range of applicability, including the physically disabled, the elderly and those suffering from chemical dependency. For example, the capacity of a witness to narrate the facts, including the ability to frame “intelligent answers” to questions, may form the basis of challenge to the testimony of a stroke victim. In one such case, the testimony from the witness who seemingly understood the questions but could respond only with the expression “uh-huh,” which, according to his caretaker/interpreter, meant both “yes” and “no,” depending upon other gestures used at the time he uttered the phrase, was excluded on competency grounds. 

While the capacity to “recollect events” could form the basis of a competency challenge to an elderly witness, infirm memory is not an absolute bar.  For example, one court has held an 80-year old witness with memory deficits competent to testify even though he could not recall the current month or any current events in the news.  In that case, the court held that the witness’s failure to recall certain events should not preclude him from testifying about matters that he could recall.

Finally, while alcoholism or drug dependency does not automatically render a witness incompetent, intoxication may give rise to two grounds for a competency challenge:  (1) a challenge based upon the witness’s inability to observe, recollect or narrate the events at the time of the occurrence due to the witness’s intoxication at the time the events occurred, or (2) a challenge based upon the witness’s inability to observe, recollect or narrate the events in court due to the witness’s intoxication at the time the testimony is offered. Either situation would provide sufficient grounds to exclude testimony on the basis of incompetency.

Texas has come a long way from the days when a witness would be considered legally incompetent based on his or her race, gender, ethnicity or religious beliefs.  Nevertheless, modern day concerns, such as the aging population (and medical issues associated therewith) and society’s struggle with problems of chemical dependency and addiction, raise new questions regarding witness competency at trial.

— Bonnie Sudderth, Judge of the 352nd District Court of Tarrant County, Texas

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