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

  • witness standYou 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 mouth.
  • 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 answer.
  • 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.

Message from Brad Carlyon, County Attorney

Brad CarlyonSince most witnesses are unfamiliar with court surroundings and understandably have fears or misconceptions about testifying, here is some information that might help you.

Keep in mind that the purpose of this information is to help you testify more clearly and accurately, and to be more easily understood by the judge and jury. For a judge or jury to make an appropriate decision, all of the evidence must be presented in a truthful manner.

You already know that you must take an oath in court to tell the truth. We want you to tell the truth. The manner in which you testify, however, will affect the judge and jury's perception of your truthfulness. If you are halting, stumbling, hesitant, arrogant or inaccurate, the judge and the jury may doubt you are telling all the facts in a truthful way. A witness who is confident and straightforward will make the court and jury have more faith in is being said.

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