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IBA: Controlling the Difficult Witness

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By John F. Kautzman,
Ruckelshaus Kautzman Blackwell Bemis & Hasbrook

One of the most important techniques for a trial lawyer to learn is witness control. This is obviously important in making your case clear and understandable in direct examination, but it is even more important when trying to destroy your opponent’s case through cross-examination.

Witness control, first and foremost, assumes:

1. You have achieved a mastery of the Trial Rules and the Rules of Evidence;

2. You understand the proper mind set —“YOU ARE THE REAL WITNESS!”; and

3. You know and can apply fundamental principles of cross-examination.

There are countless opinions on what makes a successful cross-examination, but the fundamental principles remain the same. Among these principles are three essential rules: 1) use primarily leading questions and proper pacing, 2) try to add only one new fact or topic per question, and 3) cross-examine in a logical progression toward a specific goal.

The most accomplished trial lawyers will also bear in mind these fundamentals:

• Use topical (not chronological order) for most cross-examinations.

• Lay the theme of your case early and often.

• When attacking credibility, show bias, interest, or motive early in your cross-examination.

• Always start and end with a powerful point. Never start or end with a risky proposition.

• When conducting an impeachment, do the cleanest (most easily achieved) impeachment first and last.

• Never let the witness dictate a change in your game plan.

• Place risky material which reveals your opponent’s best arguments in the middle of your cross-examination.

Mastering all of the fundamentals is only half of the job. Some witnesses require even more skill. Often the greatest fear of the cross-examiner is the difficult or runaway witness. Examples include witnesses who are non-responsive, evasive, rambling, and hostile. These witnesses pose a serious threat to the cross-examiner, and challenge the lawyer for control of the courtroom.

Witnesses like this can give trial lawyers a lot of sleepless nights and make us reconsider our career choice. But various techniques can help you establish — and reestablish — control.

Control must be achieved using professional techniques. Do not argue with the witness, talk over the witness, make a childish remark to the witness, or engage in any other unprofessional conduct which will make the lawyer look bad to the jury. There is no need to use loud, argumentative, or offensive language if you master proper cross-examination techniques. Remember: sometimes the witness becomes non-cooperative so quickly that control is not really lost but instead was never really established. In any event, the lawyer must achieve witness control.

Techniques for controlling a witness are usually reserved for cross-examination (or a quasi cross-examination with a hostile or adverse witness). It is not something that you would do on a normal direct examination, because that should be the witness you prepared and they should not wander out of control. If you start having problems with that, you need to rethink your preparation for direct examination.

Controlling a witness does not have to look rigid or overbearing. In other words, you can sometimes let the witness go and still actually maintain control as long as you know what point you want to make with the witness.

Of course, the basic techniques of impeachment are great tools for establishing control and retaking control. Prior inconsistent statements, impeachment by use of criminal convictions, and other related techniques all help you remind the witness who is in charge

Remember, all this comes back to the key purposes of cross-examination — to impeach the credibility and accuracy of adverse witnesses, and to take opportunities to bolster your theory of the case.

NEVER surrender control of the courtroom to anyone. Use your words and your delivery to maintain control and respect. If not required by the Judge’s local custom, don’t ask for permission to walk around the courtroom, or to approach the witness, and don’t constantly ask the judge for help. You should be the “Star” of that particular moment in the “Show,” and you should use that opportunity to restate the points that are favorable to your case.

Next: Specific Techniques for Controlling Challenging Witnesses

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. Ah yes... Echoes of 1963 as a ghostly George Wallace makes his stand at the Schoolhouse door. We now know about the stand of personal belief over service to all constituents at the Carter County Clerk door. The results are the same, bigotry unable to follow the directions of the courts and the courts win. Interesting to watch the personal belief take a back seat rather than resign from a perception of local power to make the statement.

  2. An oath of office, does it override the conscience? That is the defense of overall soldier who violates higher laws, isnt it? "I was just following orders" and "I swore an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer" etc. So this is an interesting case of swearing a false oath and then knowing that it was wrong and doing the right thing. Maybe they should chop her head off too like the "king's good servant-- but God's first" like St Thomas More. ...... We wont hold our breath waiting for the aclu or other "civil liberterians" to come to her defense since they are all arrayed on the gay side, to a man or should I say to a man and womyn?

  3. Perhaps we should also convene a panel of independent anthropological experts to study the issues surrounding this little-known branch of human sacrifice?

  4. I'm going to court the beginning of Oct. 2015 to establish visitation and request my daughters visits while she is in jail. I raised my grandchild for the first two and half years. She was born out of wedlock and the father and his adopted mother wantwd her aborted, they went as far as sueing my daughter for abortion money back 5mo. After my grandchild was born. Now because of depression and drug abuse my daughter lost custody 2 and a half years ago. Everyting went wrong in court when i went for custody my lawyer was thrown out and a replacment could only stay 45 min. The judge would not allow a postponement. So the father won. Now he is aleinating me and my daughter. No matter the amount of time spent getting help for my daughter and her doing better he runs her in the ground to the point of suicide because he wants her to be in a relationship with him. It is a sick game of using my grandchild as a pawn to make my daughter suffer for not wanting to be with him. I became the intervener in the case when my daughter first got into trouble. Because of this they gave me her visitation. Im hoping to get it again there is questions of abuse on his part and I want to make sure my grandchild is doing alright. I really dont understand how the parents have rights to walk in and do whatever they want when the refuse to stand up and raise the child at first . Why should it take two and a half years to decide you want to raise your child.The father used me so he could finish college get a job and stop paying support by getting custody. Support he was paying my daughter that I never saw.

  5. Pence said when he ordered the investigation that Indiana residents should be troubled by the allegations after the video went viral. Planned Parenthood has asked the government s top health scientists at the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of independent experts to study the issues surrounding the little-known branch of medicine.

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