Lights, Camera, Action: Directing and Producing Your Trial
You are the “director” and “producer” of your trial and the witness’s testimony. We can’t change the facts, but you do have the power of when and how to present them subject to the limits of the Rules of Evidence. Indiana Rule of Evidence 611 controls the manner and mode of interrogation of witnesses. This Rule provides as follows:
Rule 611. Mode and Order of Examining Witnesses and Presenting Evidence
(a) Control by the Court; Purposes. The court should exercise reasonable control over the mode and order of examining witnesses and presenting evidence so as to:
(1) make those procedures effective for determining the truth;
(2) avoid wasting time; and
(3) protect witnesses from harassment or undue embarrassment.
(b) Scope of Cross-Examination. Cross-examination should not go beyond the subject matter of the direct examination and matters affecting the witness’s credibility. The court may allow inquiry into additional matters as if on direct examination.
(c) Leading Questions. Leading questions should not be used on direct examination except as necessary to develop the witness’s testimony. Ordinarily, the court should allow leading questions:
(1) on cross-examination; and
(2) when a party calls a hostile witness, an adverse party, or a witness identified with an adverse party.
There will be times when you will have to call either the opposing party or a hostile witness to make your case. Do not forget that you are allowed to treat that witness or party as if they are on cross-examination. In all other instances, any witness called in your case in chief must not be asked leading questions. The court also has the power to limit your examination if it delves into matters which are irrelevant, repetitious, confusing, misleading, or unfairly prejudicial. Almost all evidence is prejudicial, otherwise she wouldn’t present it. It’s only when the evidence is unfairly prejudicial and the prejudice substantially outweighs its probative value that it may be excluded. (IRE 403) With these thoughts in mind let’s delve into the organization of your questioning.
A witness’s testimony has to have a clear beginning, middle and end. The beginning typically involves laying out the witness’s personal background and their opportunity to observe. Usually at the beginning of the examination you are establishing for the jury why they should find your witness a reliable source of information.
The middle part of the testimony is typically the meat of the matter you need to address with the jury. Remember, you might know the case like the back of your hand but the jury doesn’t. As a result, it’s important to address issues in a chronological fashion and to avoid the use of pronouns. This is true not only for your questions, but the witness’s answers as well. A jury will easily get lost if you do not use the names of the persons involved. When it comes to your client, never use the word “plaintiff” or “defendant”. That sounds like your client is not a human. You want the jury to connect with your client on a personal level. Once you’ve established in a clear fashion as part of a witness’s testimony that the opposing party identity (for example “the plaintiff, John Smith”) you might want to resort to using the term “plaintiff” or “defendant” in referring to the other party.
Finally, always end the witness’s testimony on a high note. Try to structure your examination so that you leave your strongest point with the jury as you sit down. Remember the power of primacy and recency effect. People tend to remember that which they hear first or which they have heard most recently. The first item in a list is initially distinguished from earlier activities as important (primacy effect) and may be transferred to long-term memory by the time of recall. Items at the end of the list are still in short-term memory (recency effect) at the time of recall.