By Julia Henry
Few events can be as unnerving as giving testimony in court. All eyes are on you, the attorneys are objecting, the court is ruling on objections and opposing counsel is attempting to twist new meaning into every statement you make. It can be very confusing and stressful for the uninitiated.
The key to good courtroom testimony is being prepared. Your attorney should spend time with you before every hearing and trial to prepare you for testimony. Your attorney will cover the nature and scope of the facts needed from you to increase the chances of winning your case. Your attorney will also review with you what types of questions to anticipate from opposing counsel. While the following list is not exhaustive, there are some general testimony rules.
Tell the truth. As obvious as it may seem, honesty is the best policy. It is wise to appreciate that most attorneys can spot a lie more quickly than other people and once a witness gets tagged with a lie the remainder of his or her testimony is highly suspect. It is also very important that facts, not speculation, support your testimony.
Listen CAREFULLY to the question and think only about that question. Do not consider “where is this attorney going with this testimony.” More importantly, do not “fix” a bad question by restating it another way so that you can answer it.
Answer ONLY the question posed to you and nothing else. Do not explain unless asked to explain; do not speculate; and do not embellish or provide other comments.
Do NOT interrupt, argue or talk over the judge or any attorney who is questioning you or you will be scolded by the judge.
If you do not know the answer to the question, state “I do not know.” If an attorney’s tone implies that you are lying, stay with your answer. Do not concern yourself with the attorney’s attitude or tone of voice.
If you do not understand a question, say “I do not understand the question.”
If an attorney stands up after a question is posed to you, do not answer the question. The attorney must stand to address the court and the attorney is seeking to make an objection. Allow the attorney to register his or her objection and the judge to rule on the objection. If the judge “sustains” the objection, do not answer the question and wait for another question.
Not using the above rules could produce the following exchange:
Q: Sir, do you drink alcohol?
- Well, sometimes, but I had not been drinking on the evening in question as my wife suggests. In fact I clearly told her that I was not drinking when she asked me that evening.
- So, will you agree with me that you may have appeared intoxicated on that evening?
- No, I just said so.
- Well then, will you agree with me that at least one person thought you had been drinking that evening?
Note the difference the above rules could produce in the following exchange:
- Sir, do you drink alcohol?
- Were you drinking alcohol on the evening in question?
- Would it surprise you to know that someone thought you were drinking that evening?
In the first scenario, the witness appears more defensive and guilt ridden than the witness who used the rules. The rules not only keep testimony less susceptible to interpretation, they also prevent an attorney from manipulating your testimony.