At trial in Michigan criminal sexual conduct cases, the accused person does not have to present a defense or any witnesses on their behalf. While many other lawyers do not present evidence or call witnesses at trial, our office most often does. We find that although we do not need to prove anything in the case, our clients and people they know often have important information for the jury to consider. We also frequently represent people with incredible character traits, and find that character witnesses are helpful. When we ask witnesses to testify in a criminal sexual conduct case, we have some important directions and guidelines for them to follow. These are the directions we ask witnesses to follow when testifying:
1. Think of testifying as simply having a conversation in a courtroom.
The only thing different is that you will be sitting in a certain chair situated so that everyone can hear you. Lawyers will ask you questions and your job is to simply listen to the question and answer loudly enough so the person in the furthest point away can hear. There is not anything magical or specific that you must make sure to say. Many times witnesses overthink what they are supposed to be doing. They come in with an agenda of points they want to make. Instead of answering questions directly and straightforwardly, they lose credibility by trying to jam in extra information. The most simple way to understand your role is to plan to have a simple conversation in a courtroom.
2. Ask questions.
Because it is a simple conversation, it is perfectly okay to say you do not understand a question or could not hear the question asked. The lawyers will always be happy to re-ask the question or clarify what they are looking for.
3. Answer every question truthfully.
This is one of the most important things you can do as a witness. Many witnesses will try to figure out why the lawyer is asking the question and try to give the right answer. This is when witnesses end up looking terrible. The truthful answer is the best answer. Any effort to avoid the question or trick the lawyer back ends up making the witness look less credible. If the lawyer thinks the answer needs to be expanded or explained better, there is always an opportunity for re-direct questioning. As lawyers, if we believe something needs to be explained more or clarified, we will ask the appropriate follow-up questions. The best thing you can do is be straightforward and honest.
4. Do not fight with the “other side.”
It is also not helpful to fight with the lawyer or prosecutor that you perceive is against your side of the case. When you are answering questions, the jury should not be able to tell whether you are a prosecution witness or a defense witness. Your tone and demeanor should remain the same throughout all questioning from both sides.
5. Use clear language.
When answering questions, it is important to use words like yes and no because a transcript is being made. The court reporter cannot transcribe answers like “uh-huh” and nods or shakes of the head.
6. Remember that there is nothing wrong with being nervous.
It is okay to be nervous and anxious about testifying. Even as a lawyer myself, when I have had to testify in a courtroom, it does feel very nerve-racking. The most important thing is to focus on is simply providing truthful answers. We tell everyone not to overthink what they are doing. You do not need to go out of your way to do anything special, for example, specifically looking at the jury every time you answer a question. You should do what feels natural for you and focus only on the conversation. There are no special tricks to make your testimony more effective. Trying to do anything like this will come across as manipulative and hurt your credibility.
7. If an objection is made, stop talking.
If an objection is made, you should simply stop talking and wait for the court to make a ruling on whether the question should be answered or not. You should not take this personally – there are rules of evidence that must be followed in every trial. You should also be aware that the rules of evidence sometimes prohibit answering questions in certain ways. For example, many people have a tendency to say what other people said. Because of complex hearsay rules, the lawyers may ask you to answer the question a different way. This, again, should not be taken personally.
Let an Experienced Attorney Walk You Through the Process of Testifying
If you are going to be testifying as a witness in a criminal sexual conduct trial, it is perfectly okay to speak with the attorneys in advance of trial. This goes for both sides – it is okay to speak with both the defense lawyers and the prosecution. There is nothing wrong with a witness speaking to a lawyer. If you have questions about calling witnesses to defend accusations of criminal sexual conduct, call our office for a consultation. We do believe this kind of evidence is important to include when it can show the jury additional important information about you and your defense, particularly in criminal sexual conduct trials.