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Credibility and the "Reasonable Person"

Tutorial on the crimes of stalking and harassment for New Mexico judges

The judge or jury must determine in every case with respect to every witness whether the witness is credible in his or her testimony. This determination also applies to the victim in a stalking or harassment case.

Credibility is critical to both the prosecution and defense in a criminal case. If witnesses are deemed not credible in their testimony that could derail prosecution efforts to secure a guilty verdict or allow the defense to raise the reasonable doubt necessary to prevent a conviction. Witness credibility can also affect defense theories such as alibi (the defendant was elsewhere at the time of the offense) or misidentification (the perpetrator is someone other than the defendant).

Questions of credibility can also impact the fact finder's assessment of whether the victim's reactions to the harassment or stalking were reasonable. Given the lack of a jury instruction regarding what constitutes a "reasonable person" victim in a stalking or harassment case, a common prosecution approach is to tie together the issues of credibility and "reasonable person." Specifically, the prosecution's approach and argument might be that if the fact finder determines the victim to be credible in his or her testimony about the stalking or harassment and the impact it had, that determination should also translate into the fact finder concluding that the victim acted as a "reasonable person" would. Conversely, the defense could potentially equate lack of victim credibility with lack of reasonableness.

The fact finder's determination of witness credibility can be based on many factors. Clearly, the substance of the testimony, the amount of detail and the accuracy of recall of past events affect the credibility determination. Whether the witness contradicts him or herself or is contradicted by the testimony of other witnesses can play a part in the credibility determination. How the testimony is delivered can also have an impact; factors include body language, eye contact, and whether the responses are direct or appear to be evasive, unresponsive or incomplete. In addition, when deciding cases jurors are allowed to take into consideration their knowledge and impressions founded upon experiences in their everyday walks of life. State v. Mann, 2002-NMSC-001, ¶32.