Are you ready to testify?
Part I: Tips on being an effective witness
By Valerie VanBrocklin
Now it's time to go to trial. You're going to be called to testify. Are your courtroom skills solid enough to help win this case, or does your lack of skill and preparation stand to endanger it? Have you mentally prepared yourself to testify effectively? "The consequences of failing to do so have been seen too often in recent times and are simply too dire," says former state and federal prosecutor Valerie VanBrocklin. VanBrocklin, whose high-profile successes have been featured in the national media, provides training to departments around the country on, among other things, successfully testifying in court and winning courtroom confrontations.
"A lot of excellent cops get snagged on the stand by issues that have nothing to do with their credibility or level of professionalism," she told the Newsline. "They get caught up in little things that are preventable through training and practice.
"Testifying in court may be the most difficult and important task an officer faces in his or her career," she says. "No other assignment subjects an officer and his/her department to more intense, microscopic scrutiny than the officer's credibility, competency and conduct in the courtroom.
"When you're testifying in court, the jury, the judge, the prosecutor, the defense, the public--all eyes are on you! Your reputation and that of your department may be enhanced or destroyed by your courtroom presentation," says VanBrocklin.
"There's another equally important reason for you to care about being an effective witness in the courtroom. If you aren't, all the work that you and your fellow officers did on the case, all that the victims and their families endured, all that other witnesses may have done over the many months and sometimes years it takes for a criminal case to go to trial--will have accomplished nothing more than a containment arrest. A single police officer's ineffective presentation in the courtroom can result in the acquittal of a defendant, no matter the amount of solid evidence you may have collected."
Pressure? You bet! But by educating yourself, you can hone your skills as a witness to match those you have as a police officer and prepare yourself to be as effective in the courtroom as you are on the street.
In part 1 of a special 2-part Newsline series, we share some of VanBrocklin's tips for success in the courtroom:
1. Dress for success
Dress for your court appearance with the same attention to detail you would in going before a promotion board. You should be exceptionally neat—fingernails clean, hair trimmed, clothes pressed, shoes shined. Carry only the essentials—avoid items that jingle, jangle, flash, shine or otherwise distract. Your department policy may dictate whether you wear a uniform or civilian clothes when you testify. Often, on-duty officers will wear a uniform and off-duty officers will wear civilian attire. In state and local courts, you may be armed whether you are in uniform or not. (In federal courts you generally won't be permitted to wear your firearm into court.) Be aware that some jurors are distracted by the sight of a witness in civilian clothes armed with a gun and carrying bullets, handcuffs, etc. even if they are testifying as a police officer. Discuss this possibility with the prosecutor before your appearance to decide what you should and should not carry.
2. Making your entrance
Mentally prepare yourself for the fact that when you enter the courtroom everyone--jurors, judges, spectators, attorneys, the defendant, the court staff--ALL will be watching your entrance. Stay poised and remind yourself that this is how every witness is viewed. Don't avoid looking at the judge or jurors; look back at them as you would a person speaking with you.
3. Taking the oath
Sometimes, police officers who frequently testify in court come to view the taking of the oath as a rote exercise. This is clearly communicated in their attitude and demeanor. They may only partially raise their right hand and hold the fingers in a relaxed, cupped posture. They may fail to look at the person administering the oath or even engage in other action, such as clipping on a microphone, while the oath is being administered. They may start to seat themselves while saying, "I do."
Stop and consider what this communicates—even unintentionally—about the witness' respect for the truth. Much of a juror's impression about a witness' credibility is based upon the witness' demeanor rather than what the witness actually says on the stand. The last thing a law enforcement officer wants to communicate is a cavalier attitude towards the truth.
The taking of the oath is an excellent opportunity for you to make a strong, credible first impression within which all subsequent testimony will be viewed.
While taking the oath, look at and seriously listen to the person administering it. Keep your right hand at shoulder level with your wrist and fingers extended until the oath is completed. Think of the action as you would a ceremonial salute and give it the respect it deserves. Make eye contact with the jury as you say, "I do," or immediately after. Remember, the oath is your word of honor, your personal promise to the jury that they can trust you.
4. Prepare yourself for the first question
It's normal to be nervous and anxious on the stand. You might sweat, shake, have trouble focusing, forget everyone's name (including your own!), speak too rapidly, speak in a monotone voice, your voice may involuntarily raise or lower...all of these symptoms are normal. Remind yourself of that.
Some pointers to help you compose yourself: Sit up straight, but not stiffly. A normal reaction to the stress of being on the stand is slouching in your chair. Don't let yourself start slouching as it may progress as your testimony continues.
Orient yourself in the courtroom. Look at each of the walls within your vision without turning around. Look at each person or groups of persons in the courtroom.
Finally, don't forget to breathe! Remember: "Poise is the ability to be ill-at-ease inconspicuously."
[Special note: If you are working a night shift or have otherwise been up all night before testifying, tell the prosecutor and suggest that he/she establish this in the beginning of your direct examination. Sleeplessness (or illness) cannot help but affect your demeanor. The jury should have this information so they can evaluate it for what it is and avoid drawing negative inferences.]
5. As you testify…
A. Listen carefully; think before you speak
Look and be attentive. This communicates that you care about being accurate and responsive. Take the time you need to fully understand the question and give the proper response. It doesn't hurt to appear thoughtful. Organize your thoughts; don't be hasty.
B. Answer the question being asked
It's tempting to add information to your answer that you think helps advance the prosecution's case. Resist this temptation. First, this is the prosecutor's job; let the prosecutor develop your testimony. Don't jump ahead, don't anticipate, just answer the question that is asked.
Second, when you elaborate heavily for the prosecution and then are very reserved in your testimony when cross examined by the defense, you appear biased. This undermines your credibility as an objective reporter of the facts.
Third, adding extraneous information to your answer opens up other areas for cross examination. Remember: "Nothing in this world is opened by mistake more often than the mouth."
C. Speak a little louder and slower than you think is necessary
Don't inject long pauses between words, phrases or sentences but do concentrate on making each word clearly heard and understood.
D. Be sincere and dignified
Trials are serious matters for everyone involved. Refrain from wise cracks and clever remarks. On the other hand, don't hesitate to laugh at yourself or an unexpected occurrence, if appropriate. Avoid appearing frozen, calculated or completely devoid of emotion.
E. Remain calm and respectful
|This is critical. It's this simple--if you, as a law enforcement officer, lose your cool on the stand, no matter what kind of case, you lose all credibility with the jury. The jury, as citizens, have authorized you to carry guns and granted you a power and use of force they do not permit themselves. If you cannot control yourself in a courtroom, they are justified in being gravely concerned about your ability to control yourself on the streets, where you are subjected to much greater stress and no one is watching.
Your patience and temper will be sorely tried with interruptions, delays, argumentative questions and attacks on your character. Do not allow yourself to become arrogant, flip, antagonistic, impatient or excited. The worse it gets the greater an opportunity you are being handed to impress the jury with your strength of character, your integrity, your dignity.
Like it or not, as a law enforcement officer, jurors hold you to a higher standard than they do lay witnesses and they expect you to be able to take more abuse on the stand and still remain professional. Be aware that experienced prosecutors know this and may not come to your defense as quickly as they might a lay witness with an objection that the defense is "being argumentative" or "harassing the witness." Take this as the compliment it is. The prosecutor knows your credibility will shine through such challenges and knows the jury will become frustrated, impatient and finally angry with your attacker.
About Valerie VanBrocklin
Described by Calibre Press as “the indisputable master of enter~train~ment,” Val Van Brocklin is an internationally acclaimed speaker, trainer and noted author. She combines a dynamic presentation style with years of experience as a state and federal prosecutor where her trial work received national media attention on ABC’s "Primetime Live," the Discovery Channel’s "Justice Files," in USA Today, The National Enquirer and Redbook. In addition to her personal appearances, Val appears in television, radio, webcasts, newspapers, journal articles and books. Contact Valerie VanBrocklin