How To Testify In Court: Managing the Questions—Dos

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May 19, 2021

Before you step into the courtroom to testify, it is important to be familiar with your surroundings to maximize your confidence, comfort and success. The following are suggestions that will cumulatively lead to your success as a witness. Managing the Questions – Dos

  1. Use common terms and be yourself!
  2. Remember to not use “s/he” when there could be confusion.

(“Then he said to her, ‘did you tell him?’ she said ‘No!’” vs. “Then Mr. Jones said to Mrs. Jones, ‘Did you tell Sam Spade?’ Mrs. Jones said ‘No!’”)

  1. Use last names, not first names (Mr. Jones, not John).
  2. Paint a picture with your answer; include time, place, and who was present.
  3. Listen very carefully to the question. Make sure you understand before you answer. If you are unsure how to answer have the question clarified.
  5. Avoid using statements like, “I do not understand.” If you do not understand the question, instead say “Could you clarify the question?”
  6. When asked a question, pause and think about your answer before you start talking.
  7. Simple “yes” or “no” answers should be directed at the person who asked the question.
  8. Longer narrative answers should be directed to the judge and the courtroom conversationally. Be brief and on point if a narrative answer is requested.
  9. Answer the question with a “yes” or “no” if possible, then explain.
  10. Listen carefully to each question and be sure that everything in it is true before answering. For example “Isn’t it true that…” Sometimes one part of the question is correct, and the other part is not. Point out what is correct, what is not, and why.
  11. If you realize you have made an error in your testimony, immediately ask the judge for permission to correct the error.
  12. If your testimony is interrupted for any reason, stop talking. This is especially true when it is interrupted by a question from the judge or a counsel’s objection.
  13. I you are asked to read a document out loud by an attorney or the judge, read it slowly so the court reporter can record your testimony.
  14. When you have an interest in the outcome of the case (party or family member) bias will be factored into your testimony. To be believed, stick to the facts, refer to the other side respectfully, leave sarcasm at home, and acknowledge that you have bias.
  15. Do not deny the obvious. “You were pretty upset when you screamed at the child weren’t you?” trying to look good is pride, and pride is not pretty. Better to acknowledge the behavior.
  16. Do not become defensive. What happened, happened. Your attorney will ask questions to put “lipstick on the pig” if it will help. Often, what seems to terrible to you is just matter of fact to others.
  17. Do not be intimidated by the attorneys. They are simply representing their clients.
  18. Remember to only ask the question asked of you.
  19. Never respond to a statement, even if the attorney raises their voice at the end of the statement as if he wants an answer. Remember, there will be a written transcript and the voice lift will not be apparent. The exception is if the judge forgets to put the question in the proper form; let the judge save face and answer the question.
  20. Do not hesitate to ask for clarification if you are uncertain about the question.
  21. If the other attorney keeps asking you the same questions, keep answering the question the same way. Your attorney should protect you, but if they do not, or they have been overruled, maintain consistency. Do not get frustrated or arrogant. Simply say, ‘As I previously said…” Stay composed.
  22. If you need to ask the judge a question, look at the judge and say, “Your honor?” Wait until the judge gives you permission before you ask the question. It’s the judge’s house. What they say goes.
  23. Note: “I do not know” or “I do not remember” are valid answers, but only if appropriate:
    1. “I do not know” means that you do not and never did know something.
    2. “I do not remember” means that you may have known something at some previous time, but do not remember it now.
  24. Use terms like “approximately” when asked for measurements of time and distance.
  25. If either attorney objects, stop talking, let the judge rule on the objection, and continue or not, per the ruling of the court.
    1. “Sustained” means STOP
    2. “Overruled” means continue answering the question.
    3. If there has been a lengthy break when hearing an objection, make sure you know what question was asked before answering. You may ask what the initial question was.

NOTE: An attorney may ask you a leading question (which supplies you with an answer) to give you a clue as to what and where they want you to go with your testimony. The question is objectionable, not the information. Of course, if the question is for inappropriate information, (e.g., “What kind of sex was the other party having?”) do not make the judge mad by deliberately disobeying the ruling.

  1. If the other side asks a question what you think is objectionable, pause before answering and give your attorney a chance to object. If they do not, answer the question. If either attorney objects, stop your answer and wait for the judge to tell you to proceed.
  2. Most important of all, tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Avoid the temptation to embellish the truth. It is not necessary and, if you are caught, your entire testimony is suspended.
  3. Do not appear to be prideful at the result.