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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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  2. Unlike the federal judge who refused to protect me, the Virginia State Bar gave me a hearing. After the hearing, the Virginia State Bar refused to discipline me. VSB said that attacking me with the court ADA coordinator had, " all the grace and charm of a drive-by shooting." One does wonder why the VSB was able to have a hearing and come to that conclusion, but the federal judge in Indiana slammed the door of the courthouse in my face.

  3. I agree. My husband has almost the exact same situation. Age states and all.

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  5. Andrew, if what you report is true, then it certainly is newsworthy. If what you report is false, then it certainly is newsworthy. Any journalists reading along??? And that same Coordinator blew me up real good as well, even destroying evidence to get the ordered wetwork done. There is a story here, if any have the moxie to go for it. Search ADA here for just some of my experiences with the court's junk yard dog. https://www.scribd.com/document/299040062/Brown-ind-Bar-memo-Pet-cert Yep, drive by shootings. The lawyers of the Old Dominion got that right. Career executions lacking any real semblance of due process. It is the ISC way ... under the bad shepard's leadership ... and a compliant, silent, boot-licking fifth estate.

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