In earlier lessons we learned about some basic tips for testifying, as well as some more advanced techniques for providing good testimony in legal proceedings. Our journey continues with tips for identifying and responding to more complex and tricky questions.
Lesson 3: Watching Out for Trick Questions
For many witnesses, their anxiety about giving testimony in a courtroom is primarily a fear of responding badly to a trick question from the opposing attorney. Here are the most common kinds of trick questions lawyers use, as well as how to successfully handle them.
These are questions that contain two (or more) questions disguised as one. By giving an answer to one of the questions, you may accidentally be binding yourself with an answer to the first question as well. To spot a compound question, listen carefully to the entire question and determine whether the attorney is really making more than one inquiry.For example: “Wouldn’t you agree that the stop sign was clearly visible and that it had been raining for several hours at the time of the accident?” If you suspect that a question may be compound, say to the attorney, “that sounds like more than one question, would you mind breaking it down for me?” Keep asking until you feel comfortable that only one question is being asked.
Questions that Assume Facts that Aren’t True
Be careful that the opposing attorney does not try to slip a false statement in with the question. By answering the question, you may inadvertently be making an admission that the false statement is true.Consider, for example: “After the car in front of you put on his turn signal, describe to me the chain of events that led to the wreck.” If the driver in front of you did not really turn on his signal, then answering the question without clarifying that fact could be dangerous. Don’t get caught up in the question and forget about the statement. If you think a question has assumed a fact that is not true, simply reply: “First, Mr. Smith, let me make it very clear that the driver in front of me never turned on his turn signal, so it’s not really possible for me to answer the question the way you asked it. I would be happy, however, to describe to you the events that led to the wreck.”
Beware of the opposing attorney asking a blanket question that summarizes your testimony and then asking you if you agree with his statement. “Let me make sure I understand, you’re saying that A, B, C, D, X, Y, and Z. Is that right?” Often times, the attorney’s summary is inaccurate and thus you may be agreeing to something that is not true. Make sure you listen carefully to each part of what the attorney is saying, and if you feel like he or she has not fairly characterized your testimony, do not agree with the attorney’s statement.Our next lesson will dive deeper, providing useful information and tips on direct and cross-examination of witnesses.