Navajo County Attorney’s Office
How to be an Effective Witness
The witness stand is a serious place...
…but it’s nothing to fear if you tell the truth and remember a few basic rules.
Suggestions on How to be an Effective Witness
- You are sworn to tell the truth. Tell it. Every material truth should be readily
admitted — even if not to the advantage of the prosecution. Honesty is the best
policy. Do not stop to figure out whether the answer will help or hurt your side;
just answer the question to the best of your memory. Do not exaggerate. If you tell
the truth and tell it accurately, nobody can trip you up.
- A neat appearance and proper attire in court are important.
- Avoid distracting mannerisms. Don’t chew gum, and keep your hands away from your
mouth. You can’t speak distinctly while chewing gum or with your hand over your
- Don’t try to memorize what you are going to say. Prior to trial, however, do go
over in your own mind those matters that you will be testifying about. If you wrote
or gave a statement to law enforcement, read it over. If you have testified in the
same case before and a transcript is available, read over your earlier testimony.
- Be serious in and around the courtroom. Avoid laughing and talking about the case
in the presence of the jury.
- Speak clearly and loudly enough that the farthest juror can hear you easily.
- Listen carefully to the questions asked of you. Take your time. If needed, ask for
the question to be repeated. Give the question as much thought as you require to
understand it, formulate your answer, and then give the answer. No matter how nice
the attorney may seem on cross-examination, s/he may be trying to discredit you
or trip you up.
- Don’t be afraid to look the jury in the eye and tell the story of what happened.
Jurors are naturally sympathetic to a witness and want to hear what s/he has to
say. If you remember that you are just talking to some neighbors on the jury, you
will get along just fine.
- Always be courteous, even if the attorney questioning you appears discourteous or
rude. Do not be a cocky witness. This will lose you the respect of the judge and
the jury. Any lawyer who can make a witness mad will probably cause the witness
to exaggerate, appear unobjective and emotionally unstable.
- Do not lose your temper. Remember that some attorneys on cross-examination will
try to wear you out so you will lose your temper and say things that are not correct
or that will hurt you or your testimony. Keep your cool.
- Never argue with a defense attorney.
- Try not to seem too nervous. Give a positive answer when you can. Avoid mannerisms
that may make the judge or jury think that you are scared, or not telling the truth
or all that you know.
- Do not nod your head for a “yes” or “no” answer. Speak so that the court reporter
can hear the answer.
- Before you testify, try to picture the scene, the objects there, the distances and
exactly what happened so you can recall more accurately when you are asked. If the
question is about distances or times, and if your answer is only an estimate, be
sure to say that it is only an estimate.
- Answer only the question you are asked. Do not volunteer information that is not
asked. Don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer, say you don’t know. If you don’t
remember, say you don’t remember.
- If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately. If your answer
was not clear, clarify it immediately.
- Explain your answer if necessary. Give the answer in your own words. If a question
cannot be truthfully answered with a “yes” or “no,” you have the right to explain
- The judge and the jury are interested only in the facts. Therefore, don’t give your
conclusions and opinions unless specifically asked.
- Unless certain, don’t say “That’s all that happened” or “Nothing else was said.”
Instead say “That’s all I remember happening” or “That’s all I recall.” It may be
that after more thought or another question you will remember something important.
- If you don’t want to answer a question, don’t ask the judge whether you must answer
it. If it is an improper question, the prosecutor trying the case will object and
take it up with the judge. If there is no objection, answer the question.
- Stop instantly when the judge interrupts you or when an attorney objects to a question
or your answer.
- When leaving the witness stand after questioning or during a break, wear a confident
expression but do not smile or appear downcast.
- Occasionally a defense attorney will ask you if you have talked with anyone about
the case and your testimony. If you say “No,” the judge or jury knows that isn’t
right because good prosecutors or their assistants try to talk to a witness before
s/he takes the stand. If you say “Yes,” the defense attorney may try to imply that
you have been told what to say. The best thing to do is to be very frank and state
that you have talked with whomever (prosecutor, investigator, other witnesses, relatives,
etc.) and that you were just asked what the facts were.
Top of Page