Tips From a Prosecutor on Being an Effective Witness

By Calibre Press  |   Jan 6, 2021

In this first installment of a two-part series, we’ll share tips from a former state and federal prosecutor for improving your effectiveness in court when called as a witness. Here are the first four of her nine tips:

1. Speak clearly and plainly.

For some reason, many officers have a tendency to begin talking like they never do in real life when they take the stand. Phraseology suddenly becomes rigid, overly formal, legalistic and often hard to understand.

Speaking in plain terms is very important to having your point understood. It also influences the way the jurors and the judge perceive you. Consider the following federal court judge’s reaction to a case filled with “police speak”:

“The agents involved speak in an almost impenetrable jargon. They do not get in their cars; they enter government vehicles. They do not get out of or leave their cars; they exit them. They do not go somewhere; they proceed. They do not watch or look; they surveille. No one tells them anything; they are advised. An agent does not hand money to an informer to make a buy; he advances previously recorded official government funds.” Sound familiar?

Do not try to impress the jury with your superior intelligence and vocabulary.

If it’s necessary to use technical terms, explain their meaning. Avoid slang and answers like, “yeah.” Don’t fill pauses with “um,” “uh,” “you know.” It’s OK to simply pause in silence and collect your thoughts. The jury won’t fault you for appearing thoughtful.

2. Describe rather than conclude.

Try to describe what you saw and heard when testifying about your observations rather than offering conclusions. For example, if a person was nervous, testify as to what you observed that makes you conclude that: “He was visibly perspiring; his eyes darted around; he couldn’t sit still; he kept looking at his watch; he was swallowing hard and licking his lips frequently; his voice quivered; his hands were trembling.”

Testimony like this is more effective not only because you appear more objective and unbiased but because it’s simple more interesting. “Think of yourself as a true crime author trying to keep your audience’s attention,” the former prosecutor suggested. “Detailed description is much more effective than mere conclusions.”

3. When being questioned, look at the examiner. When answering, look at the jury.

This doesn’t mean you should pointedly stare at the questioner and then do a sudden swivel turn to stare at the jury while you answer. Don’t act like you’re watching a tennis match. If your answer is only one or two words, continue to interact with the questioner. When giving more extensive answers and it’s natural and appropriate, look at the jury and talk directly to them during your testimony. They are your audience.

4. Don’t hesitate to have a question rephrased or clarified.

Do not answer a question you don’t understand. Do not guess at what the question is asking. It may be difficult to admit that you don’t understand a word the examiner is using, but it is certain at least one juror shares your confusion. Consider this humorous but effective example from an actual court transcript:

Q: James stood back and shot Tommy Lee?

A: Yes.

Q: And then Tommy Lee pulled out his gun and shot James in the fracas?

A: (After hesitation) No, sir. Just above it.

If you don’t understand a question, don’t simply ask the examiner to “repeat” it. Mere repetition doesn’t make a confusing question understandable and your request may inadvertently suggest that you weren’t paying attention. Instead, admit that you don’t understand the question and ask the examiner to rephrase or clarify it. The jurors who didn’t understand it either will silently thank you and note the care you take to be accurate in your testimony.

Next: Five more tips…

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Calibre Press

Calibre Press has 37 years in the business of keeping officers safer, smarter and more successful, from rookie to retirement.