How to be a Good Witness
Most of the following advice was written over twenty years ago, with a few additions and explanations on my part. It remains the best guideline I have found for civilian and expert witnesses alike. In order that your testimony might be credible and effective, the following guide should be used:
- Be truthful. Never exaggerate or shade your testimony. Just tell the facts, simply and concisely, as you know them.
- Be attentive. Listen very carefully to the questions asked by the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney. If you do not understand a question, ask that it be explained.
- Answer only the question being asked. Do not try to say everything at once or volunteer information that is not asked.
- Answer only after the entire question has been voiced. Do not try to pre-guess the presiding attorney.
- If asked two or more questions before given an opportunity to respond, ask the presiding attorney which question he/she would like answered first.
- Explain your answer, if necessary. If a question cannot be answered truthfully and fully with a “Yes, Ma’am,” or “No, Ma’ am,” you have the right to ask the judge to permit you to explain after first answering “Yes, Ma’am,” or “No, Ma’am”.
- Do not guess. Give positive, definite answers whenever possible. If you do not know the answer, do not be afraid to say so. Do not stop to figure out whether your answers will help or hurt your testimony for either the prosecution or the defense. Just answer truthfully, to the best of your knowledge and memory.
- Be prepared. Arrange with your attorney, or the Victim/Witness Assistance Unit, to re-read as a refresher, all statements previously made prior to the trial date.
- Do not attempt to memorize what you’re going to say. Simply recall the facts as you remember them.
- “Have you talked to anyone about the case?” Answer very frankly if you have talked with either side’s attorneys, law enforcement officials, your family, or others. Unless you have been directed by a judge not to discuss the case, it is normal to have spoken to others about it.
- When the prosecuting attorney or defense attorney objects to a question, do not answer such a question until the judge rules on the objection. If you are confused, ask the judge for directions. (“Sustained” generally means you won’t be answering; “Overruled” usually means you will)
- Remain calm and courteous. Do not lose you temper or become angry as it may diminish the impact of your testimony.
- Speak clearly and loudly. Always face the person questioning you; speak clearly enough to be heard by the judge and jury. Do not nod for a “Yes, Sir,” or shake your head for a “No, Sir.”
- Dress neatly. Present a proper appearance. If unsure, contact your attorney or the Victim/Witness Unit.
- You must look at the person when giving his/her identification to the court. Briefly state his/her sex, location in courtroom, and color of clothing worn. If requested to point out the person, do so with a steady, pointing arm.
- Be yourself. The judge, jurors and attorneys are human also and appreciate sincerity.
- Avoid discussing the case in the Courthouse hallways, elevators, restrooms, and cafeteria unless you are with the attorney.