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Advice when testifying as a witness in a criminal trial

Acting as a witness for the first time can be a daunting task. It can be exceptionally challenging when you are testifying for the first time in a criminal case. Unlike other types of legal cases, criminal cases usually subject the person who is on trial to incarceration if he or she loses the trial.

Before you can understand how to properly testify in a criminal trial, it is important to understand what the goal of a trial is. A trial is the final meeting of parties to a dispute, each presenting their points of view through evidence. The evidence is heard and evaluated by an independent party. Once all of the evidence is presented, a fair and impartial decision in the matter is decided. The independent party is typically either a judge or a jury. A judge is an individual person, usually a former lawyer, whose function is to sit and listen to disputes. A jury is a group of individuals (called jurors) ranging from 6 to 12 citizens. These jurors are not usually lawyers and have no knowledge or affiliation with either side of the dispute. If you follow this basic advice set forth below, you will be able to confidently testify in a criminal trial.


Do make eye contact

Anytime you are having a conversation with another person, eye contact is important. Eye contact shows that you are interested in the topic, it shows respect for the other individual and it makes you appear more truthful. The same rule of eye contact should be utilized while testifying. Make constant and significant eye contact with both the asker of the question and your target audience, the jury or judge.

When a question is asked, look intently at the person asking the questions; however, as you begin to answer turn your attention to the either the judge or the jury. If a jury is deciding your case, look directly at the jury as you answer. Make sure to look at all of the jurors as you answer your questions.

Do be sincere in your answers

Judges and jurors analyze every word spoken during a trial. It is important to speak with sincerity when answering questions and be genuine. Do not respond in an overly dramatic manner or cry when it is not appropriate. If you answer questions in an over-the-top approach, the judge or jury will be less likely to take your testimony as believable.

Do be concise

During a trial, you are most likely going to be asked questions by lawyers representing each side. Listen to the questions carefully. Lawyers are trained in the art of question asking and typically ask questions that are specifically worded. Once you have listened to the question, answer the specific question that has been asked. Do not offer additional information, or ramble in your answers.

Do be professional

From your attire to your answers to questions, it is important that you behave in a professional and respectful manner when testifying in court. How you dress when you are a witness should be the same way you would dress for a professional business meeting. Shorts, tank-tops, jeans and sneakers are generally frowned upon by the judge. If you want the judge or jury to take you and your testimony seriously, you should dress in a serious manner.


Do not be argumentative

Testifying is about credibility. You need to be believable as witness. If you are believable, the judge or jury will be more likely to think your testimony was credible. One way to lose credibility is to be argumentative as you answer questions. Regardless of your personal beliefs or affiliation with one side of the dispute at trial, answer only the questions asked. Do not be argumentative when answering the questions.

Do not guess at questions you don’t know the answer to

As you testify you will be asked hundreds of questions. During preparation for trial, you may meet one or both of the attorneys to discuss the questions you will be asked. You will know the answers to a majority of the questions, but there will be some questions you do not know the answers to. If you do not know the answer to a question, do not guess. You gain credibility if you are honest and admit when you do not know the answer to a particular question.

Do not lie or exaggerate

People lie while testifying at trial all the time. Do not do it, especially in a criminal trial. As a witness, if you are caught lying, you could be charged with perjury. Perjury is a violation of criminal law and can subject you to incarceration. Another, even more important reason not to lie while testifying in a criminal trial, is that your lies may taint the outcome of the trial. A trial is the search for truth. A large part of the decision is based upon the testimony of the witnesses. If the witnesses are not truthful, or exaggerate their answers, the judge or jury could reach the wrong decision. This could result in a guilty person being set free or an innocent person be sent to jail wrongly.

Do not testify without speaking to the lawyers first

Before you testify, make sure that you meet with the attorney who will be asking you questions for the side you are advocating for. In this meeting you will be able to go over the specific questions you will be asked and what to expect on cross-examination. In addition to discussing specific questions that you will be asked, this meeting is crucial to learning proper courtroom procedure and etiquette. This meeting should also address issues about what to wear, where to sit, who to look at and even what to do if you need to use the restroom while you are on the stand.

Jumping cartoon

Testifying as a witness in a criminal trial is a significant responsibility and should be taken seriously. Be honest and sincere; make eye contact as you testify. Do not get argumentative and do not guess at the answers to the questions during your testimony. Most importantly, do not lie. Follow this advice and you will be a believable and compelling witness.

More expert advice about Criminal Law

Photo Credits: Courtroom One Gavel by Flickr: Joe Gratz; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

John S. RoirdanPartner

John is a highly experienced, AV-rated, criminal trial attorney who handles complex criminal matters. Additionally, he has extensive experience representing clients in Federal crimes and Federal legal matters such as pre-indictment investigation...

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