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One of the Youtube channels I'm following is running a series of videos about an ongoing lawsuit (within reason, of course). The latest video has an interesting point that got me wondering.

Suppose the lawsuit is about events that took place about a long time ago (in the case above it's in 1999, that's over 23 years now). The lawyers of one side are questioning a witness from the other side. The questions are carefully crafted, but in the end they manage to get a statement of the witness that they are sure of some fact X. They even ask them several times, just to be sure.

Then the questioning lawyer produces a photo that clearly shows fact X to be wrong.

Is the witness now allowed to say something along the lines: "Huh. That's odd. I clearly remember it differently. But it's such a small detail and it was so long ago..."? Or is it now considered a deliberate lie?

As for jurisdiction: the above case is in the USA, but since I'm myself from Latvia, I'm interested in generic answers for various jurisdictions (or maybe it's the same everywhere?)

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    That's why it might be a good idea to preface you answer with something like "well, it was such a long time ago, and it's such a small detail, but what I remember is..." Otherwise you risk a SLOC incident. Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 4:09
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    Frankly, a witness report from 23 years ago seems a bit silly to me. Get together with old friends (e.g., from school, or whatever else was happening to you 20 years ago) and try to independently recall some moderately interesting incident from that time - chances are you'll get as many different versions of what happened than there are people. Doesn't even have to be "small details", you probably don't even agree on who was actually in the room if it was that long ago.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 7:19
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    @MichaelHall - What's a "SLOC incident"?
    – Vilx-
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 9:46
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    SLOC = Sudden Loss Of Credibility. Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 13:55
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    @xLeitix Yet the Carroll v. Trump hinged on facts that the victim and her friends remembered from almost 20 years ago; the theory is presumably that we have better memory of important things. OTOH, this is probably why we have statute of limitations.
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 15:01

3 Answers 3

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Is it possible for a witness to backtrack and claim that their previous statements were wrong because they misremembered? ... Is the witness now allowed to say something along the lines: "Huh. That's odd. I clearly remember it differently. But it's such a small detail and it was so long ago..."?

Yes.

Or is it now considered a deliberate lie?

A judge's assessment of a witness's credibility and reliability is much more nuanced. See "How is a judge to evaluate a witness's credibility?"

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Witnesses are allowed to change or correct their testimony, especially for events that happened long ago. Memories are fallible and details fade over time.

As long as the change seems genuine and in good faith, not deliberately false, courts understand witnesses can make honest mistakes. The key is whether the revised testimony seems credible. The court considers:

  • How long ago the events occurred
  • What prompted the change
  • Was it an objective fact like a photo that showed the witness's initial memory was wrong?

If so, a genuine correction is not viewed as perjury. The witness likely just misremembered details due to the passage of time. Deliberate lies to mislead the court are viewed differently. But honest mistakes and corrections based on new information are typically allowed.

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    – Community Bot
    Commented Aug 2, 2023 at 5:56
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A trier of fact can make determinations about the credibility of a witness for pretty much any reason that they want. They can decide a witness is lying because they contradicted their previous testimony, or because they aren't making eye contact, or they're making too much eye contact, etc.

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