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IBA: Classic Techniques for Controlling Challenging Witnesses

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By John F. Kautzman
Ruckelshaus Kautzman Blackwell Bemis & Hasbrook


From the onset, let the witness know that you know the case, and you know the facts, better than he does. Pack your early questions with plenty of detail, so the witness already knows that you have a command of the facts, and his fear of embarrassment might make him think twice before sparring with you. For example, if the case involves a specific intersection where an accident occurred, walk through a detailed description of that intersection, pointing out tiny landmarks that even he might not be sure of. The time that you take in the early part of your examination to force the witness to respect your knowledge will pay huge dividends by the end of your examination.

This also has the benefit of giving you an air of authority over this case. It helps your credibility with the jury, and implies to the witness that if he tries to take you on, you will prove to the jury that he is wrong and thereby embarrass him.

Another technique in witness control is asking only short questions, designed to be “building blocks” based upon one concept at a time. Short questions are less likely to be objectionable to the other side, and therefore you don’t risk letting the other side upset the flow of your examination. Secondly, short questions are less likely to confuse the jury, and the jury will be able to watch you build your pyramid of proof. Thirdly, and most importantly, the narrow scope of your question gives the witness fewer avenues of escape. Therefore, there is less ability for him to take control, and a much greater chance of your keeping control.

Use leading questions. Now I did not say ask only leading questions – I said “USE” leading questions. A good trial lawyer will tell you that there are situations which require you to deviate from leading questions. Sometimes, simply for style reasons you need to change your pace and ask non-damaging questions in an open way. Other times, you are simply trying to pound on your theory of the case, and you really don’t care how the witness answers the question. Other exceptions exist as well. However, those exceptions should be used sparingly. Even on those rare occasions when you deviate from leading questions, make sure you only do it in an area where you have thought through the consequences. Don’t box yourself into an open-ended question and then allow the witness to hurt you with his explanations.

Always conduct your examination in such a way that there is a point! Elicit the required information and stop. Otherwise, you will be faced with the lawyer’s nightmare of asking one question too many. Doing this will almost certainly allow the witness to destroy an effective cross-examination with a last minute flippant answer or explanation.

Another method of controlling the witness is to simply let him know that you already have him locked in, and that you are not going to let him stray from that previous statement. You may even wish to remind the witness about the prior statement at the beginning of your examination by reminding him that he made a sworn statement not too long ago and that due to the rules of evidence, it is now necessary for him to testify in person concerning the subject matter. In this way, you are subtly (but very clearly) reminding the witness that no matter how clever he thinks he his, you intend to restrict him to his previous statement.•

Next: Techniques for Controlling Challenging Witnesses That Work, Some with Risk

Reference material and suggested reading : Fundamentals of Trial Techniques by Tom Mauet, Cross Examination-Science and Techniques by Larry Pozner and Roger Dodd, The Litigation Manual – A Primer for Trial Lawyers from the American Bar Association, and The Power of the Proper Mindset by James W. McElheney.

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  1. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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