Welcome to the second installment of MyFamilyLawyer.net’s series of Tips for Testifying in Legal Proceedings. In Lesson 1, we discussed the basics of providing courtroom testimony. This lesson, on how to respond to questions on the stand, will describe more sophisticated techniques for providing testimony in legal proceedings.
- Do Not Exaggerate. Specifically, do not make over-broad statements that you may have to correct. Be particularly careful in responding to a question that begins “Wouldn’t you agree that . . .?” The explanation should be in your own words; do not let an attorney put words in your mouth.
- Explain your answer if necessary. Give the answer in your own words, and if a question can’t be truthfully answered with a “yes” or “no” answer, explain the answer. If an attorney demands a “yes” or “no” answer and you can not give one, let the judge know that, and explain that to do so would be misleading to the court or inaccurate.
- If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately. If your answer was not clear, clarify it immediately. It is better to correct a mistake yourself than to have the attorney discover an error in your testimony. If you realize you have answered incorrectly, simply say “May I correct something I said earlier?”
- Don’t get flustered by inconsistent testimony. Sometimes, witnesses give inconsistent testimony, where something they said before doesn’t agree with something they said later. If this happens to you, don’t get flustered. Just explain honestly why you were mistaken. The judge or jury, like the rest of us, understand that people make honest mistakes. Stop instantly when the judge interrupts you, or when an attorney objects to a question, and wait for the judge to tell you to continue.
- Keep it to yourself. The judge and the jury are interested in the facts that you have observed or personally know about. Therefore, don’t give your conclusions and opinions, and don’t state what someone else told you, unless you are specifically asked. If you’re going to be asked about your conclusions and opinions, a good attorney should let you know that they will be looking for “expert witness” opinion from you so that you can prepare for that in advance.
- Give positive, definite answers when at all possible. Avoid saying “I think,” “I believe,” or “in my opinion” if you can be positive. If you do not know, or cannot remember, say so. Do not guess or make up an answer. You can be positive about important things which you naturally would remember. If you are asked about little details which a person naturally would not remember, and you’re unsure of the answer, it is best just to say so.
- Unless you’re absolutely certain, don’t say “That’s all of the conversation” or “Nothing else happened.” Instead say, “That’s all I recall,” or “That’s all I remember happening.” It may turn out that after more thought or another question, you will remember something important.
- Beware of the trap where an opposing attorney asks “Have you told me everything” or “Is there anything else you want to add to the record?” In all probability you have not been asked about everything possible. The best response is to say, “I believe I have answered your questions to the best of my ability.”
- If there is an objection, stop speaking, and wait until the judge has ruled on the objection and has provided instructions as to whether or not you should respond.
- Sometimes an attorney may ask this question: “Have you talked to anybody about this case?” If you say “no,” the judge or jury knows that doesn’t seem right, because an attorney usually tries to talk to a witness before he or she takes the stand, and many witnesses have previously talked to one or more police officers, counselors, or social workers about the case, depending on the issues. In a criminal trial, it is perfectly proper for you to have talked with a civil attorney, the prosecutor, police or others before you testify, and you should, of course, respond truthfully to this question. Say very frankly that you have talked with whomever you have talked with – the attorney, the victim, other witnesses, relatives or anyone else. All you need to do is to tell the truth as clearly as possible.
- Ask for assistance. Tell the judge if you need assistance, for example a glass of water, a break to use the bathroom (if testimony takes a particularly long time), or if you need some other accommodation.
- After a witness has testified in court, he or she should not tell other witnesses what was said during the testimony until after the case is over. Therefore, it’s very important that you do not ask other witnesses about their testimony and do not volunteer information about your own.
Come back for the next lesson in the series, where we’ll talk about how to successfully respond to trick questions during witness testimony.