How to Provide Better Courtroom Testimony

How to Get Prepared for Success on the Witness Stand

Courtroom Testimony
Having to testify in court can make you nervous. Ron Chapple/Getty Images

There's an often quoted but rarely credited statistic which claims that the number one fear for Americans is public speaking. Supposedly, people are terrified of having to stand in front of other people and give a speech even more than they're afraid of dying. Whether true or not, it might explain why so many criminology and criminal justice career professionals get so nervous when it comes to giving courtroom testimony.

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, there's really nothing to fear so long as you prepare yourself and listen to advice on how to testify in court.

When Testifying in Court, All Eyes Are On You

No matter how much work was done on a case, no matter how airtight the evidence against the defendant may be when it gets to a jury, almost everything depends on your performance on the stand. In many cases, such as DUI's and minor misdemeanor cases, the 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.

The gravity of the responsibility can be overwhelming.

Finding Success on the Witness Stand

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.

Good Courtroom Testimony Starts With 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, and all of your 'T's' should be dotted and 'I's' crossed.

Before You Testify, Get Familiar with Your Case

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 that you can not only answer any question asked but so you can anticipate where a line a questioning may be taking you.

Identify and Address Mistakes Before Taking the Witness Stand

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 that you can find and address those mistakes before the opposing attorney does.

Speaking of identifying mistakes, don't let their presence 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 losses cases and gets officers fired. Instead, confront them, explain them and let the chips fall where they may.

Pre-Trial Conference

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.

Keep the Noise Down As You Take the Witness Stand

Remove any loose change, keys and other items that may make a lot of noise from your pockets. This may seem like a small thing, but it can be a long walk from the rear of the courtroom to the witness stand.

The room is often so quiet you can hear a pin drop, and jingling keys or change can make you very self-conscious as you walk to the stand with so many eyes on you.

Don't Slouch When Testifying

When you take the stand, don't slouch. 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.

Talk to the Jury When You Testify in Court

When answering questions, look at the jury, not the attorney. This feels unnatural because it's the attorney who is asking you the questions. Remember, though: it's the jury who you're answering the questions for.

They are the people you are telling the story to, and they are the people who will ultimately 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.

Keep Calm and Carry On in Court

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.

Honesty Is Always the Best Policy

Be honest. This 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. If your word is no good, then neither will your testimony be.

Testifying in Court Is Really Just Another Day on the Job

Courtroom testimony can be extremely nerve-wracking, but it doesn't have to be. In fact, with the proper preparation, it can even be fun.

Testifying in court is a vital component to 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.