There are three things to keep in mind when preparing a witness… Credibiliy, credibility, credibility. Let’s face it; the most persuasive witness is the witness who is most credible. Such a witness speaks clearly, calmly and plainly, does not exaggerate, does not dodge the question, and is able to look the jury right in the eye as they testified. They do not argue, make flippant remarks or engage in sarcasm. It really makes no difference how smooth your witness is, how nice he looks or whether he is glib, if he is not believable. A con man may have these traits, but that doesn’t mean a juror or jury would trust them. A party or witness needs to resist the temptation to make their testimony better than it really is. As mentioned before, “you don’t want to take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn it into a bad case.” Here are a few general tips in checklist form for your witnesses:
1. Review any relevant documents, especially statements or depositions.
2. Review any exhibits with the witness and make sure they can authenticate them properly.
3.G o back to the scene of the incident at issue and take in all the details. The witness should try to visualize what occurred.
4. Dress appropriately in business attire or a suit if proper. Do not dress in a flashy manner.
5. The witness should be advised of any exclusion/separation orders or motions in limine which have been granted. Regardless the witness should stay outside of the courtroom until called to testify and should refrain from speaking with other witnesses or strangers who might be a potential juror or witness. Tell the witness they are not allowed to talk with anyone about what has happened in the courtroom.
6. If asked if you spoke to anyone, be honest and say yes. Advise the witness that there is nothing wrong with speaking with you before testifying and if he is asked about it there is nothing to fear. This is part of the preparation process so that the jury’s time is not wasted and evidence can come in an orderly fashion. Emphasize the need to be truthful and accurate and tell the witness if they are asked that this is the primary purpose in meeting with them in advance.
7. Always be a lady or gentlemen no matter how rude the other attorney might be.
8. Conduct yourself in a dignified manner. No chewing gum or tobacco in the courtroom. Be mindful that once on the grounds you never know who might be watching. This includes attorneys, jurors or the judge.
9. Take the stand and clearly accept your oath in a calm fashion.
10. Speak loudly and clearly so that all the jurors can hear your answers and look at them when you answer.
11. Be yourself and speak in terms you are comfortable with, but avoid slang or curse words.
12. Stay factual and avoid exaggerating, guessing or giving opinions where facts will do the job. Stay away from terms such as “I believe” or “I think” as they indicate that you are guessing. These terms create “milk toast” answers of little evidentiary value and are dangerous. If you don’t know the answer or cannot recall then simply say so. Again, don’t guess or speculate.
13. Do not memorize your testimony. Pat answers lack the ring of authenticity and candor.
14. Listen carefully to the question and do not answer a question that you do not understand or which has more than one correct answer.
15. Do not quarrel or argue with the other attorney no matter what.
16. Give a direct answer to a direct question. If it can be answered yes or no, then answer it in that fashion. Do not try and explain the answer if an explanation is not asked for by the other attorney unless an explanation is truly required. Before doing so ask the attorney politely, “May I explain my answer?” If he or the judge says no move on and wait for the next question to be asked.
17. Be careful of absolute terms and questions to “box” you in as a witness. This includes question that use language such as “So that is all that happened?”, “You are sure?”, “So you never did…?”, “You always…?”, etc. It is better to respond ”That is all I can recall,” if you forgot something. The answer, “I don’t know” means it has never been in your brain, while “I don’t recall” means the information sought has been in your consciousness, but you are unable to retrieve the information at the moment.
18. Cover with the witness the foundation for “refreshing recollection” under IRE 612 and “past recollection recorded” under IRE 803(5)
19. Don’t try to sneak in answer. If there is an objection stop immediately until the Court has ruled and you have been either instructed to move ahead or a different question is asked.
20. Don’t play attorney and object to questions yourself. That is the role of the attorneys, not the witness. That being said, you always have the right to understand the question being asked.
21. If you have received a subpoena and witness fee, know that this is perfectly appropriate. If asked, “Are you being paid for your testimony?” answer, “No, I received a witness fee for my time. My honesty is not for sale.”
22. If you are on the stand for an extended period and are tired or need to use the restroom, ask for a break. However, do not speak with anyone during the break. This is inappropriate and could lead to claims or arguments that you were being coached.
23. Most importantly: always testify truthfully and accurately.
On direct examination Indiana Rule of Evidence 611 requires you to use non-leading questions to elicit information from a witness. Like a good journalist you must uncover the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. Incorporating these words into your questions will avoid leading the witness and prevent objections concerning the form of your question.
Like a good journalist covering a story, jurors are going to want to know the who, what, where, when, why and how of the witness’s story. As the writer Rudyard Kipling so aptly put it:
I kept six honest serving men.
They taught me all I knew.
Their names were what and why and when
and how and where and who.
Make sure to take advantage of primacy and how you structure your examination so that the most telling points of the witness’s testimony will stay with the jury. To formulate your questions in a non-leading fashion, make sure to use these common terms.
Questions typically have to be asked in a non-leading fashion. That being said, there’s nothing to prohibit you from asking topically leading questions each time you introduce the jury to a new topic. Just like the journalist, you can use transitions to act as headlines for what is coming in your examination. For example, you could introduce a topic by stating: “I would like to talk with you about the day of the accident. Would you tell the jury how your day started on June 15, 2012?” You can also build your examination on testimony that has already been provided the witness. So if the witness provided you with testimony on a topic, you can link your next question to the information already provided. The witness tells you that they were in shock after the collision, you can follow-up with a question such as, “You said you were in shock after the collision, how did that affect your ability to communicate with those around you?”
The use of non-leading questions makes the witness the focus of the jury’s attention and allows for a more narrative and natural delivery of information to the jury. This enhances the witness’s connection with the jury and their credibility.
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.
“Practice… We talkin ’bout practice.” – Allen Iverson 2002
Just like Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia Sixers, no one likes to practice, but it is necessary if your witness and you are going to stay in sync. In order for your witness examination to be credible and persuasive, both the questioner and the witness must be on the same page. Otherwise, the testimony will come across like two ships passing in the night. The only way to get a smooth and flawless examination is for the questioner and witness to know exactly what is expected by the other. Obviously, the most important witness is usually your own client. Any run-through with your client is privileged as attorney-client communications because you are providing legal advice about how to handle their direct examination. (IRE 501 and I.C.34-1-14-5 and I.C. 34-1-60-4.) I would videotape the client’s testimony and allow them to see it so they can critique their own the delivery of their testimony.
Make sure you give the witness or your client copies of any earlier statements/depositions and, if possible, have them return to the scene of the incident to check it, note landmarks and refresh their recollection. If at all possible, you should try to meet with the witness or client at the scene of the incident so that you can discuss the scene and make sure you’re both talking about the same thing. If this is not possible, an acceptable substitute is to conduct a virtual tour of the scene utilizing Google maps or Google Earth.
Emphasize to the client or witness that accuracy is the most important thing. This requires that they clearly understand the question and avoid any exaggerations or opinions. They should stay factual in their descriptions. When a witness or client slides into opinions, they enter dangerous territory. They are prone to guess, speculate, exaggerate or just plain get it wrong.
My own favorite saying is: “Don’t take a good case, try to make it a great case, and turn it into a bad case.” The first rule I learned when as an insurance defense attorney was to let a plaintiff exaggerate all they want. There is nothing that undermines a claim or gives rise to the all-popular defense mantra of “secondary gain” than needless exaggeration.
The flip side of this is to water down answers with qualifiers such as, “I think,” “I believe,” or, “In my opinion,” when they actually know the facts. Make sure your client or witness avoids using such terminology. It is better to show that you don’t know or recall than to guess or speculate. Also, pay attention to clients who raise the pitch of their voice at the end of sentences. It makes them sound tentative or like they are checking with you on whether their answer is correct. You should only raise the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence when you are asking a question.
Once again, the primary rule is to answer truthfully and accurately.
The more significant a witness is to your case, the more important it often is to let the jury know exactly who they are. Usually, your client is one of the most important witnesses the jury will hear from during the course of trial. When dealing with such witnesses, I will generally cover age, where they live, personal background such as where they grew up, their family, their education and work experience, and any special qualifications which might bear on their credibility or believability as a witness. Such matters are typical covered at the beginning of the witness’s testimony. It’s difficult for someone on the jury to trust the person’s testimony; they may feel like they don’t really know them.
Keep in mind how you relate to people you meet. You typically look for connections and things you have in common. Don’t forget who your audience is. Is there information in your witness’s background that might establish such a connection with one or all the jurors? What in your witness’s background enhances their credibility? What would you want to know about your witness if you were a juror? Is there something in your witness’s background that might create empathy or understanding for any weakness they may have in communicating? Try to approach each witness with a fresh set of eyes.
Everyone admires someone who overcomes adversity or is hard-working. If there are things in your witness’s background which you can weave into your examination, make the jury went to cheer or root for them, then find a way to present such testimony subtly. A bit goes a long way so don’t beat the jury over the head with it.
When it comes to persons being called for minor matters such as establishing the foundational prerequisites for the admission of documents or other tangible evidence, it may not be as important or necessary to cover matters outside of the witness’s education, training, experience and job duties relevant to their position as a custodian of the document or item of evidence.
Has your client or witness, assuming it is a more significant witness, had involvement in civic or charitable matters? Have they held public office or been an officer in an organization which is positively viewed by the public at large? These sorts of connections help a juror bond with a witness or client. They are part of who the witness is. Everyone admires those who give back. It helps to show that the witness or client is part of the solution, not the problem. As noted earlier a bit of such testimony goes a long way so don’t overdo it.
Buddy Yosha, the Melvin Belli of The Midwest, meticulously outlines his examination and writes out every question and expected answer. He also uses marginal notes to signal general topics of the examination such as background, anatomy, treatment opinions, permanency, future medical expenses and treatment, etc. You get the idea. This system works well for him. Some of the other attorneys in our office have adopted it and have been successful in outlining testimony in this fashion. However, such as system has its drawbacks.
First the outline is very long. I have seen some outlines that have gone well over a 100 pages which can be cumbersome. It is basically a deposition transcript of what you hope to present. When it comes down to studying it, you are lucky to get through it two or three times in a single sitting. It can also lead to the testimony coming across scripted and stiff.
It does the have the advantage of allowing you to fully visualize the expected testimony. If you are pressed for time it can also provide a clear blueprint for the witness’s testimony which would allow a young associate or paralegal to work with the witness and know what to expect as far as the question and answer.
There is an alternative method that I use. I outline the facts I hope to obtain from the witness, in the order I hope to obtain them from the witness. I will write at the top of my outline the legal elements of the claim I expect to cover with the witness (breach of duty, proximate cause, damages, etc.) and list any exhibits by number and description , I hope to cover with the witness. I make the question up as I go. The testimony comes across spontaneous and more conversational.
From my perspective this type of outline can be reviewed multiple times because it is substantially shorter than one which has both the questions and answers. It places the emphasis on your goal, the expected answer, not the question. This forces you to listen to the witness, instead of moving on to your next question. You make up each question as you go which helps you develop the skill of forming questions on the fly. If an objection is sustained, no worry, you simply rephrase the question. It’s second nature to you.
This method forces you to develop the skill of thinking on your feet and adapting rapidly to your opponent’s objections and the Court’s rulings. Most of the time if you rephrase the question, the Court will allow you to move forward. With a scripted witness outline, I have seen attorneys freeze in their tracks when an objection is sustained because they are locked into their script and do not have the requisite skills to rephrase their question quickly. It makes them look like they are struggling and have been hurt by the legal objection. This second method of outlining a list of facts, also keeps you focused on the goal… the witness’s answer.
The only exception to this rule is when you are asking a question which requires information to be loaded into it such as for an expert witness such as a hypothetical question or when words of legal art must be included in the question, such as “Based upon a reasonable degree of medical certainty, what caused Mr. Roger’s numbness in his left arm?”
Hypothetical questions, as noted above, should be written out in advance so that no key facts are omitted. Otherwise your question could be objected to as an incomplete hypothetical or one that either misstates the record.
There is more than one way to outline your examination. Choose the method which works best for you. Both approaches have their advantages and drawbacks. Good luck!