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

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kautzman-john-mug By, John F. Kautzman, Ruckelshaus Kautzman Blackwell Bemis & Hasbrook

Techniques of witness control are numerous and none should be overlooked, no matter how basic they may seem. For instance, when cross-examining a difficult witness always maintain eye contact. Avoiding eye contact is often interpreted as weakness. By directing your full attention to the witness’ eyes you serve non-verbal notice that you expect direct answer to your questions.

Be aware of body positioning and movement. While you are maintaining eye contact with the witness, you must stand firm and still as you await a response. This is necessary to convince the witness that all eyes are on him and the entire courtroom is waiting for a straightforward answer to the question that is before him.

Another good basic technique is to simply re-ask the same question. Thus, if you get a non-responsive answer, repeat the question once or twice until they get the message and answer the question. For example, without taking your eyes from the witness, slowly ask the question again in exactly the same words and the same tone of voice. This controlled repetition emphasizes to the witness, the judge, and the jury that the witness is refusing to answer a simply straightforward question.

A softer corollary to simply repeating the question would simply be to say “my question was” and then repeat the question. It sounds like you are trying to be more helpful than confrontational.

If you have received a long answer that beat around the bush and tried to confuse the real issue with a lot of window dressing, you might simply respond to such an answer by saying “so your answer is yes”. Depending on your demeanor, this can also be a more kind and gentle way of getting a witness back on track.

Many times using the formal name or title of the witness will remind the witness that he or she is risking embarrassment or humiliation. By using a formal name or title, (such as “Doctor or Professor”, did you not understand my question), the witness is made aware that you mean business.

Sometimes you can ask the court reporter to simply read the question back after your efforts have failed to get a simple answer to a simple question. However this is most effective when there is a stenographic reporter. In a more modern courtroom that just uses a tape recorder, that technique can be cumbersome. Yet another effective technique is called the “spontaneous loop”. A loop is the repetition of a key phrase. Often times, by listening closely to the witness’ answers, you will find a word or phrase that is helpful to you. In that instance, you simply loop the helpful phrase back to the witness. This technique helps silence rambling witnesses because they start to fear hearing their own words spoon-fed back to them. For example, if in the middle of a long rambling answer, the witness says that we did thus and such “like a normal family would”, the cross-examiner asks a series of follow-up questions such as, “so like any normal family you did this, and like any normal family you did this, and like any normal family you did that” etc.

There are a couple riskier techniques you might consider such as a physical interruption to a rambling answer to get the witness back on track. The most typical technique in this regard is the lawyer simply holding their hand up like a traffic cop “stop” signal. In essence, the lawyer has silently interrupted and the witness will stop, allowing the lawyer to restate the question and thereby refocus the answer.

Another physical technique that can be used, is simply walking back to counsel table while the witness is engaged in a lengthy non-responsive answer, sitting down, and staring down at the table as you let the witness ramble. The witness will usually sense the confrontation and stop, which will allow the lawyer to take a deep breath and slowly restate the question. This is a powerful technique, but since it is fairly insulting to the witness, it must be reserved for a witness who is clearly and completely worn out his welcome with the jury. Otherwise, (if used too quickly) you risk offending the jury by making the lawyer look arrogant or childish.

Finally, a powerful, but risky technique that should be reserve for very bad situations, is to simply pull over the blackboard and write the question out. It is a visual way of pointing out to the jury that you are simply trying to get a straight forward answer to a simple question. But once again, that kind of professional exasperation must be saved for the truly exasperating witness.

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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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