5 Tips Every Witness Should Know About Cross Examination

If you go by what you see on television and in the movies, cases are won or lost in court with a blistering cross examination of the key prosecution witness by the defense attorney. Invariably, the scene ends with the witness admitting in a tearful outburst to being the person who actually committed the crime. Here are five facts about cross examination you should know if you are called as a witness at a trial.

What happens in Hollywood stays in Hollywood

Cross examination in real life is rarely as dramatic as what is created by screenwriters. Cross examination is the stage of a trial during which an attorney has the opportunity to question a witness who has just testified for the opposing party. Instead of going for the knockout punch as portrayed in Hollywood, most attorneys engage in a methodical and well-planned cross examination designed to reveal inconsistencies in a witness’s testimony or to cast doubt on the accuracy of it.

It might not be as entertaining as on TV, but cross examination serves a purpose

  • The purpose of cross examination is for the attorney to chip away at the opposing side’s theory of the case. This is done through a careful and methodical questioning of the witness that tries to elicit any of the following:
  • Inconsistencies between the witness’s testimony in court and statements given previously
  • The witness’s bias or prejudice against the attorney’s client
  • Physical impairments that might have prevented the witness from making the observations noted in direct testimony
  • Evidence that supports the questioner’s theory of the case. For example, if the defendant in a criminal case is claiming self-defense, an admission by the witness that the victim was yelling at the defendant could support the defense theory that the defendant feared for his or her life.

The best thing a witness can do is tell the truth. Trying to make your testimony sound better is almost certain to end with an experienced attorney turning it against you.

Be prepared, but don’t memorize what you expect to say

Before you go to court, take time to recall the facts that you anticipate testifying about. One thing you should not do is try to memorize what you will say in response to certain questions. Memorized testimony sounds fake and is sure to make you a target for a probing cross examination.

Listen carefully to the questions

The questions used during a cross examination are designed to keep a witness off guard or, in some instances, to trick the witness. Listen carefully to the question. Answer only what has been asked. If you do not understand the question, ask the judge to have it read back to you or rephrased by the questioner.

You have the right not to know an answer

Cross examination can be difficult for a witness. Do not feel as though you will be looked upon as a poor witness if you cannot answer each and every question. If you do not know the answer to a question, it is safer to say, “I don’t know,” than it is to guess. The primary rule for a witness is to tell the truth, and that includes admitting if you do not know or are unsure of an answer.


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