PREPARING TO BE A WITNESS
In any legal trial, the witnesses are the core of the presentation. They provide testimony in Court, and that’s “evidence” – the facts that the judge or jury will be required to consider in reaching a decision on the case. Articles have been written instructing the lawyer on how to prepare. Sometimes, however, the witness himself/herself can profit from practical advice about being a witness in this probably unfamiliar setting, before even getting to a consideration of what the particular case is about. Of what should the witness be aware?
WHERE AND WHY?
Make sure you know exactly where you are going geographically, and how to get there. Talk to the lawyer who is asking you to testify, or the lawyer’s staff, if you have any doubts or questions. Unless you are told otherwise, it’s a good idea to arrive a half-hour before your scheduled time to be there, if you are one of the parties to the lawsuit; usually fifteen to twenty minutes in advance is enough if you are a “regular witness”.
Ask the lawyer who is asking you to testify what this proceeding is going to be for; is it a deposition? A trial? Will there be a jury? It’s OK to ask for an estimate of how long you will be there for your part in this – but be aware that court proceedings can be unpredictable in many ways, including the length of the proceedings.
Dress neatly. It would be a very good idea to avoid t-shirts which advertise places and things – particularly those which feature beer or drugs; avoid “smart” sayings, like “I see stupid people”, or “I have issues”. “I want to be a millionaire” is not a good idea when you are going to bankruptcy court or suing somebody for money. It is not necessary, however, to dress like you are going to a party or a fancy banquet or ball.
Bring appropriate documents with you – particularly those documents that you have been asked to bring. Bring a book; there may be waiting periods before your turn comes, no matter how carefully your appearance has been scheduled.
WHEN YOU GET THERE:
Your appearance in Court starts when you pull into the parking area at Court. Words, behavior, etc., can come back to haunt you when they are repeated by somebody else in the Courtroom – or days later, when you encounter the “other side” in the supermarket. You are already being evaluated as to truthfulness, character, etc., by the time you arrive at the Courthouse.
If the “opposition” is known to you, be polite; say hello if they say hello to you, but leave it at that if possible. Do not engage in long conversations with them, and try not to sit with them. Don’t get into arguments or discussions with them about what you are there for; if they persist, ask one of the security staff if there is somewhere else you can wait.
WHEN YOU TESTIFY:
You will be placed under oath, either of the older “so help me God!” variety, or the newer non-spiritual “affirm under penalty of perjury” – which indicates that you know you will be committing perjury if you lie – and that you won’t lie!
You will be probably be questioned first by the lawyer who is calling you as a witness. That lawyer can’t “Put words in your mouth”; “what happened then?” is proper, “did he then hit you in the mouth three times – hard?” is not proper. Then the other side(s) question you, and they aren’t limited to that open-ended type of question; for example, they can ask you about whether specific facts, that they recite, are correct. After all the lawyers have questioned, they may “go around the group” again, with each lawyer asking more questions. The judge may ask you some questions when the lawyers are done.
Pay attention to the question. Listen to the whole question; make sure you understand it. Don’t guess at what is being asked; if the lawyer – or the judge – isn’t clear in stating the question, and you don’t really understand what is being asked, say so. Make sure it is a question you are able to answer. If it’s a “yes or no” question, answer it that way, and wait for the next question. Don’t speculate, don’t volunteer; say what you know, not what you think “makes sense”.
Pay attention to your answer. Make sure you know the answer; don’t guess. Even when you have to answer several questions in a row, and you don’t know the answers, “I don’t know” is the correct answer; if you think you did know at one time, but you can’t remember now, “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” is the correct, truthful answer.
Answer every question truthfully. Intentionally lying is a crime, and can wreck what you are there for. Even little lies on small points can raise a question of whether you can be believed about anything you say. Unless you are asked for an opinion, rather than something factual, don’t offer your opinion; it will probably just leads to objections, legal wrangling, and annoyed people which doesn’t help anything.
Speak slowly and clearly. The stenographer or the recording machine has to capture every word. They can’t record a nod or shake of the head.
Answer what you are asked; if somebody wants more, they will ask another question. A short-answer question is not an invitation to preach. Don’t answer a question with another question, like “wouldn’t you?” Keep your cool; remember who everybody is, and what you’re there for. Don’t waste half your mind in getting angry; that only leaves half your mind to think. Don’t try to be “nice person” wit the opposing lawyer, if that lawyer is trying to con you into saying something wrong, or backing off from an answer you know is right.
Don’t let anyone put words in your mouth. If somebody describes something you’ve said, and asks you about it while you’re still on the witness stand, and you know you didn’t say it, say so.
Be careful and thoughtful about numbers like time, speed, etc. Try this before you get there: if something is said to have lasted a minute or two, sit (at home) and don’t say or do anything while you’re watching a clock, and see how long two minutes really would be.
If you have to speak or refer to the lawyers during your testimony, use “Sir”, “Ma’am”, or “Mr./Mrs.” and their name. The Judge, no matter whether male or female, is always “Your honor”; if you goof, and call the Judge “sir” or “ma’am”, don’t panic; it’s not a big deal; just try not to do it again.
AND IN CONCLUSION:
This is only the beginning; but it gives the prospective witness a head start when he or she is about to venture into probably unfamiliar territory.