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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. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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