How to Provide Better Courtroom Testimony
Preparing for success on the witness stand
Public speaking is a common fear and it helps explain why so many criminology and criminal justice career professionals get nervous when it comes to giving courtroom testimony. Testifying in court is a vital component of any criminal case. As unnerving as it can be, it is one of the most important parts of any job in criminal justice or criminology.
Whether it's a deposition, a suppression hearing, a traffic court case, or a full-blown trial, many police officers, crime scene investigators, and other professionals dread having to testify. The good news is that there's nothing to fear so long as you prepare yourself and listen to advice on how to testify in court.
All Eyes on You
No matter how much work was done on a case, no matter how airtight the evidence against a defendant might be when it gets to a jury, a lot depends on your performance on the stand. In many minor misdemeanor cases, an officer may be the only witness. That means the entire case may rest on you. No pressure, right?
To make matters worse, you might feel like you're under attack when attorneys pepper you with questions about every detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem. It's uncomfortable and frightening, and the gravity of the responsibility can be overwhelming.
With so much riding on your testimony, it's easy to see how someone could get flustered on the stand. How can you combat those nerves and make sure you seal the deal with the judge or jury? First of all, you need to relax, stay calm, and above all else, tell the truth.
A Strong Case
The first step toward finding success on the stand is making a good case to begin with. This is where your detective skills come in. Every detail should be documented, evidence should be properly collected and stored, and the chain of custody should be properly maintained.
Do not underestimate the importance of perfecting your writing skills. Your police reports should clearly articulate facts in a coordinated, orderly, and coherent manner with no details left unaddressed.
Ideally, you'll have time to look at all of the relevant information well in advance of the trial or hearing. Read all of the reports and witness statements associated with the case—not just your own.
Be familiar with every aspect of the case so you can answer any question asked and anticipate where a line a questioning may be taking you.
No matter how thorough and detailed you were during your investigation and when you wrote your report, you may find you made a mistake somewhere. It may be a missed signature or a detail you thought insignificant at the time. It could be a misspelled name or a missed fact. Whatever it may be, make sure to scour your reports so you can find and address those mistakes before an opposing attorney does.
However, don't let mistakes discourage you or frighten you. They happen. The worst thing you can do when you find a mistake is to try to hide it or cover it up. That shows dishonesty, and dishonesty loses cases. Instead, confront them, explain them, and let the chips fall where they may.
Before the hearing or trial, make sure to speak to the assistant state attorney or ADA, if only for a few minutes. Go over your case with him or her and try to identify any weaknesses. By knowing where the case may be vulnerable, you may be able to compensate. In any instance, you won't be caught off guard when the opposing council presses those issues.
When you take the stand, sit up straight. Raise your right hand as you're sworn in, and clearly and confidently state "I do" when asked if you swear to tell the truth. Your posture is important; you want to convey confidence and attentiveness, not aloofness and a lack of caring. Make eye contact with everyone you speak to, whether it's the judge, the clerk or the attorneys, to help convey that confidence.
When answering questions, look at the jury, not the attorney. This feels unnatural because it's the attorney who is asking you the questions. The jury is your audience, and they are the people who ultimately will decide the case. Make eye contact with them as you answer questions. Smile when appropriate, and make it a point to be polite, respectful, and attentive.
No matter how hard it may be, no matter how off base you may think the defense counsel is, keep calm. Answer the questions calmly, clearly and slowly, one at a time. Answer nothing more than the question that is asked; don't offer anything more. Avoid the temptation to get upset or angry. Just answer the questions, and don't worry about anything else the attorney says or does to distract you or upset you.
Being honest is perhaps the most important aspect of testifying in court. First and foremost, if you always tell the truth, you'll never have to remember what you said.
As far as your case goes, if the jury senses that you are being less than truthful, they won't believe anything you have to say. Because law enforcement officers and other criminology professionals are held to a high ethical standard, there is no tolerance for dishonesty. A lie about one detail could lead to a jury dismissing your entire testimony.