6 tips for preparing yourself for courtroom testimony
If you're inexperienced in the courtroom, you need to read this.
By Megan Wells, PoliceOne Contributor
Testifying in court can be terrifying for anyone, even for the most seasoned police veteran. It’s easy to let the attorneys unexpectedly shift your thought process if you don’t have a lot of practice in the courtroom, and you may forget the facts you want to speak about.
Based on your location, rank and responsibility, you may testify often, rarely or never. The six tips in this article are perfect for an officer who has little experience in the courtroom. Go in prepared, stay focused, and you’ll do just fine.
Here are six tips for your upcoming testimony
1. Remember why you’re there.
If you’re testifying, it’s likely because a defendant is saying he or she is innocent of the crime you charged them with and thereby inferring you are either lying or did not do your job correctly. The defense attorney will do everything in his or her power to prove their client is telling the truth. Don’t take this lightly.
2. Assume the jury is skeptical of you.
The jury selection process (if you’re testifying in front of a jury) is arduous and far from perfect. While many questions are asked to weed out potentially biased jurors on both sides, it’s not a flawless system. This means that the jurors who are selected may or may not have a bias against police officers. It’s important to go into the trial assuming the jury is judging you just as intensely as the defense and the prosecution.
3. Be prepared.
The scrutiny you’re about to face is intense, so arm yourself with preparation. Don’t look at your police report quickly before you walk in to testify. Take the time to relearn the particulars of the case and bring any notes you have from the event.
Often you’ll be called into court on a case where the offense happened long ago. It’s not normal to remember every detail of the case, but you’ll be expected to have well-prepared answers to the questions. The less prepared you are, the less credible you appear and the more pressure you will feel.
4. Know your professional scope inside and out.
It’s OK if you haven’t memorized every line of your police handbook, but you should familiarize yourself with relevant components for the case being tried.
Let’s say you’re at court for a DUI case. Make sure you have memorized every clue for every field sobriety test you conducted. You don’t want to be caught off guard when the defense asks you to recount the six clues of the horizontal gaze nystagmus and you can only think of two.
Don’t be surprised if you’re asked about obscure parts of your job, either. When is the last time you brushed up on Title 17 (this title relates to DUIs in California)? You can guarantee the defense attorney has definitive knowledge of Title 17 and can find a shortcoming in your efforts or testimony based on your lack of knowledge of a minor byline in Title 17.
Remember, they want to poke holes in your credibility to sway the jury toward reasonable doubt.
5. Brief is good.
Don’t give more detail than you need to. Being brief requires listening to each question carefully and thinking before you speak. It also requires being prepared enough to know what you’re saying.
The defense’s case likely relies on a story you won’t be privy to. The defense attorney will pull you in directions you didn’t even think about if you give them an inch. Being brief does not mean you’re hiding something or lying, it just means if you’re prepared enough to be able to give concise answers that are specific to the events. Don’t add unnecessary information or allow yourself room for tangents outside of what you need to say.
6. Speak to the jury.
It’s easy to speak in cop jargon without realizing what you’re doing. Most of the jurors have probably never been exposed to law enforcement language, so speak to them like civilians. They aren’t the reason why you are on the stand either, so be professional and kind when addressing them.
Most importantly, no matter how much the defense rattles you, remain calm while testifying. Losing control in front of the jury will not bode well.
Lastly, brush up on your presentation skills if you haven’t since the academy. Preparation will take you far. Refer back to these basic steps each time you need to prepare for testimony.