The Greatest Rule of Cross Examination – Always ask a leading question!

Alright you are getting ready to do your first cross-examination and you wonder what is the most important rule to being successful? It is simply this “Always ask leading questions that provide information supportive of you case.” You ask, “How can that be?” That’s too simple!

The rule is easy to announce, but it is not easy to abide by in Court. It takes practice and discipline. In 1982 right out of law school, I was fortunate enough to work as a law clerk for a federal judge in Hammond, Indiana in the infamous “Region” of northern Indiana and had the opportunity to watch one of the best cross-examinations I have ever seen. I was looking in on a criminal trial being defended by renowned and flamboyant Chicago defense attorney Frank W. Oliver (1920 to 2006). He came to court with a cape across his shoulders and amulet hanging from his neck. I gazed on as Attorney Oliver regally stood and asked a FBI Special Agent leading question after leading question for well over an hour. Frank logically linked in sequence one leading question after another to drive home his point. His cross-examination was mesmerizing and devastating in driving home his defense theme.

At a break, I approached Attorney Oliver and asked if I could pick his brain about cross-examination. He generously offered to speak with me at the end of the day over dinner. He told me that I needed to get a copy of Plato’s “The Republic” and read it. He promised that the secret of a successful cross exam Could be found in the pages of Plato’s book. Over the next couple of days, I intently read the “The Republic” from cover to cover. At the close of his trial, Frank promised we would discuss the book and what I had learned. Several days later at the close of his trial while the jury deliberated, Frank asked me what I had discovered? I told him that, “Cross-examination was simply argument disguised as a series of rhetorical questions.” He told that I had learned my lesson well and that was all there was to it. Mr. Oliver explained “I structure my questions in such a fashion that I don’t care what the answer is because I am providing the jury with my arguments and the theme of my defense through the series of rhetorical questions I ask of the witness.” Frank’s lesson has stay with me over the years. I have used what I learned to great effect in cross-examinations I have conducted since then.

So remember the golden rule of cross-examination… Always ask leading questions! If you still don’t see the point, follow Mr. Oliver’s advice to me and read Plato’s “The Republic” and you will see light as I did. Thanks Frank for your advice. It has served me well.


Above is a copy of Frank Oliver’s Stamp he placed on many of his beloved and treasured books that he collected. Registered & Protected

Posted on February 11, 2012, in cross-examination and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Frank didn’t recommend The Republic. He did recommend another work by Plato; the dialogue called Meno. The issue is whether knowledge is innate or learned. Socrates claims that knowledge is innate and that he can prove that a slave knows the Pythagorean theorem. Alcibiades says no. Socrates then examines the slave in such a way that the slave appears to know the theorem.

    Your comments about Frank are interesting; I just think you misremembered the work he recommended.

    • I know it was the Republic because I still have the book I bought, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he suggested other dialogues since there is a rhythm to the rhetorical discourse. Another attorney recounted the same sort of experience in a book on cross-examination called “Your Witness: Lessons on Cross-Examination”. It sounds like Frank was very generous in mentoring young attorneys. Thanks for the comment.

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