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To minimize confusion and to make trials manageable, all evidence must be relevant, material and competent.  Describe, in your own words, what these three words mean in relation to testimony in a criminal trial?

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In legal terms, I would say that “relevant” and “material” mean essentially the same thing.  However, “competent” means something different, which means that evidence can be relevant and material without being competent.  However, it is hard for evidence to be relevant without being material.

Evidence that is relevant is evidence that tends to prove or disprove a fact that matters in a case.  The fact that it tends to prove or disprove must be one that can be legitimately raised in a given case.  For example, let us say that a person is being charged with robbery.  The prosecutors want to bring up the fact that the person was convicted of drunk driving in the past.  This would, in my mind, be irrelevant because the fact that they drove drunk does not tend to prove or disprove the idea that they would rob someone.

Evidence that is material is very much the same as evidence that is relevant.  In order for evidence to be material, it has to be evidence that a reasonable person would think is connected to the issues in the case at hand.  Therefore, the drunk driving arrest would be immaterial because it does not tend to prove that the person would be likely to rob someone.

However, evidence can be material and relevant without being competent.  In order for evidence to be competent, it needs to be admissible.  In the context of our hypothetical robbery trial, it would be relevant and material for someone to testify that the defendant is psychologically prone to commit crimes.  However, unless that witness is in some way a certifiable expert in the field of the psychology of criminals, the evidence would not be competent because it would just be someone’s idle speculation.

Thus, I would say that “relevant” and “material” both have to do with whether the evidence has any bearing on a case while “competent” means that the evidence can legally be admitted in a trial.

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