This comes up often in my practice. I am talking with a defendant in a criminal case or an ancillary witness that is going to testify in court, and they want to know what to expect. Often people are scared, nervous, and downright terrified of testifying in court. Generally, if you are going to be called to testify your lawyer and you have sit down and talked about what you will be asked. Most lawyers will prepare you properly and start you off with easy questions to help you get comfortable. At those early stages testifying should be easy. You know what your lawyer is going to ask and you know he or she is on your side and won't try to trip you up. But then comes the cross examination. The time where the other lawyer is going to get up and ask you questions you may not be expecting. The time where the other lawyer may try to make you look dishonest or an outright liar. This is the part people fear. Here are some easy steps to help you survive a cross examination.
1. Keep your answers short and to the point. Don't expound on something when you aren't asked to. Don't use 50 words when 5 will do. The more you talk the more chance you give the lawyer cross-examining you to twist your words.
2. Don't be scared to recant on small things. People make mistakes in their memory. That is ok. If you say there were five people at the party and then later remember there were actually 6 or 7. Correct yourself. When you refuse to recant a small mistake it will cast doubt on everything else you say.
3. Stick to your guns on the issues that matter and tell the truth. If you saw something, heard something or witnessed something tell it to the fact finder. Don't let the person cross-examining you put words in your mouth.
4. Be matter of fact, don't hedge. You are there because your words matter, so say them with confidence.
5. Never, not even for one second, think you are smarter than the lawyer that is cross-examining you. Remember you are on the lawyer's turf. He or she has spent alot of time thinking of what they will ask you and crafting their questions. You are answering on the fly from memory. The odds are in their favor. Just because a lawyer is asking you easy questions doesn't mean they aren't trying to set a trap for you in the end. It is common for a lawyer to "play dumb" to get you committed to a certain story, only to then later bring up all the mistakes in that story. Remember, I'm not saying that all lawyers are smarter than you, I'm just saying you are on their turf and they know the rules. It's their job to be better at talking than you.
6. Tell the truth. Testifying is not a game; it is not a you vs. them. There are not winners and losers. There are only people that tell the truth and people that lie. If you tell the truth, (win, lose or draw) you will know you did the right thing.
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