Preparing witnesses 3: some reminders to the witness

 Posted By: je froilan m. clerigo
29-May-2008

          Below is just seven of the things that we usually discuss with the witness immediately before he takes the stand:

          1.  You are under oath to tell the truth, so just do that. If you do not know the answer, say you do not know. If you do not remember, say that, too. Don't guess. You may think that you knew something because somebody told you about it; however, when you're testifying in court, you don't really know that something because you were not there when it happened: you have not seen, witnessed or perceived the event by your own senses. So, say you do not know. Or, qualify your answer by telling the examiner the source of your knowledge: that you only knew it from someone else.

          2.  When your lawyer stands before the question is finished, that generally means he will be objecting to the question, so don't answer immediately. The judge will later decide if you will answer or not.

         3.  If you do not understand the question, do not answer. Instead, say that you did not get the question and ask that it be repeated. Remember, you are there to tell the truth; you'll not be able to do that if you didn't understand the question in the first place.

          4.  Be courteous to the court and the other attorney. Address the judge as "Your Honor", the lawyers as "Sir" or "Madame."

          5.  Every word uttered in court is recorded, unless the lawyers and the court agree that it be "off-the-record". So speak clearly, slowly and loud enough so the stenographer will be able to record everything you say. It'll distracting if the stenographer interrupts the testimony and asks you to repeat what you said earlier so she can transcribe it.

          If you want to answer the question or questions in the vernacular, say so and your lawyer will ask permission from the judge. You’ll be allowed to do so.

          6.  Listen to the words of the question carefully, but do not interpret them. Ascribe only ordinary meaning to the words used. When the question is "who are you?", that usually refers to your name only; it is not a deep question that asks for your personality, or values, or advocacy. Answer only what is being asked. The questions and answers in court are unlike everyday conversations, when we can read meaning into questions and understand what the other is asking although different words may have been used. If necessary, ask that the question be interpreted in the vernacular first so you will feel comfortable with its meaning.

          7.  Your lawyer may ask you to recall conversations. Unless the question calls for it (of which you will be told beforehand), don’t be afraid to paraphrase; your lawyer is not asking you to repeat the conversation word for word. It is usually impossible to recall the exact words; what matters is the message that those words conveyed to you.

          It is different during cross-examination, however, where the other lawyer will attempt to "box" you into committing to the exact words that were used. Resist; say that you can only paraphrase. This will give you elbow room later if he repeats the question.

          Finally, we warn the witness not to be late. Only judges have that privilege.