Tips for Testifying in Court
- Tell the Truth -.Do not try to figure out whether your answer will hurt or help one party or another or anyone else. That job is for the judge or jury. Just answer truthfully, to the best of your memory. Every true fact about which you are asked should be readily admitted.
- Be Prepared - Try to recall what happened. Picture the scene, the people, and the objects there. When did each person arrive? What did each person do? Write down details. Feel free to bring your notes to trial, but answer questions in your own words.
- Speak Naturally and In Your Own Words - Don't try to memorize what you are going to say. Doing so will make your testimony sound rehearsed and unconvincing. Instead, be yourself. Prior to trial go over in your own mind those matters about which you will be questioned.
- Answer Verbally - The court reporter or recording system must be able to hear all your answers, so please don't nod your head for a "yes" or "no" answer. You will sound better if you don't use words like "yeah", "nope", and "uh-huh."
- Speak Clearly To Be Heard - Be aware of distances and open spaces in the courtroom. This can make it difficult to hear. When you first take the witness stand, look at the juror who is seated the farthest from you and speak so that you can be heard to that distance.
- Understand the Question - Whenever you are asked a question, listen to the whole question before you start to answer. Make sure you understand the question and then give your answer. If you do not understand the question, say so and ask to have it clarified. I are not sure of a question and you want it repeated, say so.
- Answer Fully, Stop, and Wait - This tip has two parts. First, after you have made sure you understand the question, answer it fully. You will be under oath to tell the whole truth. Don't leave out something that is part of what the question asks. Second, answer ONLY the question asked. After you have made sure you understand the question, answer it, then stop, and wait. Do not go beyond the question or volunteer anything that you were not asked.
- Speak Positively When Possible, But Don't Guess or Speculate - Give positive, definite answers when at all possible. Avoid saying, "I think," "I believe," or "In my opinion," if you can be positive. If you do know, say so. Don't make up an answer. Be positive about things which you remember. If you are asked about details which you do not remember, simply say you don't remember.
- Time, Distance, and Estimates - If a question is about distances or time, and if your answer is only an estimate, say it is only an estimate. Beware of suggestions by attorneys as to distances or times when you do not recall the actual time or distance yourself. Do not agree with their estimate unless you independently arrive at the same estimate.
- Don't Exclude Possibilities - Unless you are sure, don't say "that's all of the conversation," or "nothing else happened". Instead, say "that's all I recall," or "that's all I remember happening". It is possible that after more thought or another question, you will remember something important. Consider whether you saw everything or only part of it.
- Don't Exaggerate - Don't make overly broad statements that you may have to correct. Don't say, "he couldn't walk," when he did walk, thought it was painful and difficult. Instead say, "it was difficult and painful for him to walk."
- Leading Questions - Be particularly careful in responding to a question that begins, "Wouldn't you agree that ...?", or "Isn't it true that ...?" The explanation should be in your own words. Do not allow an attorney to put words in your mouth.
- Correct a Mistake - If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately. If your answer was not clear, clarify it immediately. It is better to correct a mistake yourself than to have an attorney discover an error in your testimony. If you realize you have answered incorrectly, say, "May I correct something I said earlier?"
- Inconsistent Testimony - Sometimes, witnesses give inconsistent testimony--something they said before doesn't agree with something they said later. If this happens to you, don't get flustered. Just explain honestly why you were mistaken. The jury, like the rest of us, understands that people make honest mistakes.
- Talking To People About the Case or Your Testimony - Sometimes an attorney asks if you have talked to anybody about the case. It is perfectly proper for you to have talked to people before you testified, and you should, of course, respond truthfully to this question. Sometimes an attorney asks if you have talked to the opposing attorney or the opposing party about your testimony. Again, this is perfectly proper, and you should respond truthfully.
- Dress Well - A neat and clean appearance is important for court. The way you dress and present yourself is a direct reflection on you. You should be comfortable, yet appropriately dressed for court (i.e., no hats, shorts, immodesty, etc.). Avoid distracting mannerisms such as chewing gum.
- Be Prepared To Wait - Witnesses may need to remain nearby for a period of time before testifying. You may want to prepare for this by bringing a book to read or some handwork to help you pass the time.
- Taking the Oath - When you are called to testify, you will first be sworn in. When you take the oath, pay attention to the clerk or justice of the peace, and clearly say "I do."
- Direct and Cross Examination - When a witness gives testimony, he or she first is asked questions by the lawyer calling him or her to the stand. This is called the "direct examination." Then the witness is questioned by the opposing lawyer. This is called "cross examination." (Sometimes the process is repeated two or three times to help clear up any confusion.) The basic purpose of direct examination is for you to tell the judge and jury what you know about the case. The basic purpose of cross examination is to explore the accuracy of your testimony. Don't get irritated if you feel you are being doubted in cross examination. Use the same tone and effort when answering questions from both sides.
- Where To Look - When you are being asked questions and are giving your answers, look where you are comfortable looking. Some witnesses feel the most comfortable looking at the person who asked the question. Other witnesses prefer to look at the questioner during the question and at the jury during the answer (or at the judge when there is no jury).
- Keep Your Temper - Don't lose your temper. An angry or impolite witness is less likely to be believed. Always be polite and courteous. When an attorney is impolite to you or unduly attacking your character, that attorney usually is losing with the judge or jury, and you win by remaining calm. Being polite makes a good impression.
- Objections - "Objection" is a legal term that means one of the attorneys claims you are being asked an improper question. When you hear a lawyer say "objection," simply stop speaking and wait for the judge to rule on the objection. If the judge decides the question is proper, he or she will "overrule" the objection. If the judge decides the question is not proper, he or she will "sustain" the objection. If the objection is overruled, you may answer the question. In case of doubt, ask the judge whether you are supposed to answer.
- Sidebar or Conference at the Bench - A "sidebar" is when the judge and the attorneys meet at the judge's bench to discuss something. They meet at the judge's bench so the jury cannot hear their discussion.
- Be Aware of the Jury - Jurors who are, or will be, sitting on the case in which you are a witness may be present in the same public areas as you. For that reason, you should not discuss the case with anyone because it is inappropriate for the jury to receive any information or opinions about the case except in the courtroom. If you see a juror, you are not allowed to speak to the juror, even to say hello. Remember, too, that jurors may have the opportunity to observe how you act outside of the courtroom.
- Lend a Hand - If you believe that you have information that the prosecutor may not be aware of, make certain that you inform the prosecutor immediately about your information. If you recall a misstatement, point it out to the prosecutor so that it can be corrected.