As a witness/investigator of a crime, your preparation for court essential to the successful presentation of evidence. The courtroom is where true investigators thrive and poor investigators stumble. This article provides a foundational outline for sound courtroom performance. Experience and adherence to these basic rules will strengthen the presentation of evidence in the cases you have works so diligently on.
THE INVESTIGATION: Diligent investigation and preparation is the key to any successful prosecution in a criminal case. Adequate documentation is essential. In court if it's not documented in a report. it did not happen. Defense attorneys expect all relevant facts to be documented. Therefore, all reports, statements or other evidence in the case must be brought to the attention of the Prosecutor well in advance of trial so that he may adequately comply with discovery orders. The Court may exclude from the trial any evidence the defendant is not notified about before trial.
CRIMINAL COURT PROCEDURE: A criminal case is begun by the Prosecutor filing an Information resulting from and affidavit filed by you, another sworn officer, or by a Grand Jury returning an Indictment against the defendant. Unless the defendant enters into a plea agreement, his guilt or innocence will be determined at a trial on a date determined by the trial judge.
RECEIVING A SUBPOENA: This court order directs you to be present at the time and place stated. Once you are served with a subpoena, you are obligated to appear. Your failure to appear may result in dismissal of the criminal charges. This failure may also result in charges against you so it is very important that you inform your prosecutor if you cannot appear as directed.
AT TRIAL: If you have not had previous courtroom experience, make it a point to visit the court and listen to others testify. This is the best way to understand and familiarize yourself with what you will face as a witness.
Effective courtroom performance is founded upon experience and diligent preparation. Before taking the stand, you should be thoroughly familiar with all reports prepared by you, and all statements or depositions given by you. Any change in testimony at trial may result in impeachment by defense counsel and points scored by his client.
In the event you do forget, say so, and you will be permitted to refer to your reports to refresh your memory. If you take your reports with you to the witness stand, keep in mind that a witness who has to fumble through his notes, or read verbatim from a report when asked about important events, is not very forceful or effective.
If you are the primary investigator you also must have a firm grasp of all reports filed by others during the investigation and encourage them to adequately prepare.
It is common procedure for the trial court to exclude all witnesses from the courtroom while others are testifying. This is to insure that the testimony of one witness does not influence the testimony of another. Do not discuss the testimony of witnesses who have already testified. Once you have testified you are free to leave the courtroom, or remain in the audience unless otherwise ordered by the Judge or requested by the Prosecutor.
WHEN TESTIFYING: Here are some suggestions to keep in mind as you prepare for your court appearance:
(1) Dress neatly and conservatively, and be courteous. The way you dress and present yourself is a direct reflection on your testimony. You want to be sure that your appearance and manner do not distract the judge or jury from careful consideration of your testimony. Police officers should be in uniform, or in at least a sport coat and tie (men), or comparable attire (women). No tinted glasses or flashy jewelry. A question should be answered politely and confidenly.
(2) Be attentive. You should remain alert at all times so that you can hear, understand, and give a proper response to each question. If the judge or jury get the impression that you are bored or indifferent, they may tend to disregard your testimony. Use good posture, do not slouch.
(3) Be serious in the Courtroom. Avoid joking and wisecracks in the jury's presence. The jury is sitting in judgment of another person whose liberty is at stake. That is always a very serious matter. BEWARE of hallway actions and conversations.
(4) Always tell the truth. At trial, as in all other matters, honesty is the best policy. If you tell the truth and tell it accurately, nobody can cross you up. Do not guess or make up an answer. If you do not know the answer it is best to say, "I don't know." If you are asked about details that you do not remember it is best to say, "I don't remember".
(5) Take your time and speak clearly and loudly. Give the question such thought as it requires to understand it. The juror farthest from you should be able to hear distinctly what you have to say. Do not chew gum and keep your hands away from your mouth. Since all testimony is recorded, do not nod your head "yes" or "no".
(6) Answer all questions directly. Answer only the questions asked, then stop. Avoid "volunteering" information. If you do not understand a question, ask that it be explained. Do not look at the Prosecutor for help while you are testifying and never ask the Judge if you have to answer. This will give the jury the impression that you are holding something back. You are on your own.
(7) Do not lose your temper. Some attorneys may attempt to wear you down so that you will lose your temper and say things that are not correct. Do not fence or argue with the attorneys. They have a right to question you, and many are very expert in this craft.
(8) BEWARE: of questions involving distance and time. If you make an estimate, make sure that everyone understands that you are estimating. BEWARE of questions asking if you are willing to swear to your version of the events. You were "sworn" to tell the truth when you took the stand, do not be afraid of saying so. BEWARE of questions asking if you have spoken to the Prosecutor, the witnesses, or other officers. If you have, admit it freely. This preparation before trial is expected in each case. If you are asked if you talked with the Prosecutor about your testimony, admit that you met with him, talked about the case and he instructed you to tell the truth. BEWARE of questions asking why you don't like the defendant. You may best respond by stating that you feel sorry for any man in trouble, but you must tell the truth, and if the defendant is guilty, he should be convicted. BEWARE of questions asking you if another witness was telling the truth or lying. You can only tell the truth based upon your observations. You have no way of knowing what another person observed, especially when you did not hear that person testify. BEWARE of the simple question, "Why are you here today?" You are an unbiased witness that has been served with a subpoena.
(9) Give positive, definite answers when at all possible. Avoid saying, "I think, I believe, In my opinion." A witness, unless designated as an expert witness, testifies to facts, not beliefs or opinions.
(10)Never make a comment about polygraphs, prior criminal record of the defendant or the fact that the defendant involked his right to an attorney unless specifically asked by counsel. If an objection is made while you are testifying, stop and await instructions from the Judge.
(11) Be yourself. Do not use "legalese" or police "lingo". The jury will not be impressed and may misunderstand your testimony.
The most effective witness is one who can tell their story comfortably using vocabulary everyone in the jury can understand. Just tell the truth and be yourself. Everything else will take care of itself.
BE PREPARED - KNOW THE CASE
Know all reports and prior statements/depositions
Know the role of other officers/witnesses in investigation
Review physical evidence; visit crime scene
Meet with Prosecutor
LOOK GOOD - SOUND GOOD
Professional, unbiased, courteous
BE YOURSELF - ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH