Author: Christy Dunn, Attorney at Law |
Testifying in court is an inevitable part of the job for police officers. At some point, every officer will get called to testify. Most, however, feel very uncomfortable with this aspect of their jobs. Here are 10 tips for testifying in court that will strengthen your testimony in the eyes of the jury while, hopefully, lessening your apprehension about being on the witness stand.
- Meet with the Prosecutor Before Trial
Many police officers feel that having a pretrial meeting with the prosecutor is a waste of their time when the prosecutor can just read their report. However, this meeting can be a valuable learning experience for both the officer and the prosecutor. Sometimes, a prosecutor will, unknowingly, make assumptions when reading a police report that are wrong or will miss an important detail that was vital to your decision-making at the scene. By meeting with the prosecutor prior to trial, you can accurately explain what happened or point out these important details. This will enable the prosecutor to ask the right questions in front of the jury, which will make you both look better.
Additionally, a pretrial meeting will give you an opportunity to ask the prosecutor what to expect at trial. The prosecutor can usually give you a preview of what issues will be important, what the defense will be, and the tendencies of the defense attorney. All this information will allow you to better prepare for court.
A third reason for taking the time to meet is that it will win you points with the prosecutor. If you are willing to work with the prosecutor as he is preparing for trial, he will be more likely to work with you on scheduling issues. The prosecutor, to some degree, controls how long you spend waiting at the courthouse. If you blow off a pretrial meeting, you may find yourself spending all day sitting in a hallway waiting to testify for five minutes.
- Read Your Report
Most of the time, many months will elapse between when you work a case and when it goes to court. You will, undoubtedly, work many other cases during that lag time. And chances are, you won’t remember any of the details about this case come trial time. So, it’s very important to go back and read your report to refresh your memory. You need to read the report before you meet with the prosecutor and again the night before trial. When you are on the stand, you will be asked about several specific details of the case, including dates, times, and addresses. By reading your report before trial, you will appear prepared and knowledgeable about the case in front of the jury.
This preparation will also prevent you from making a big mistake while on the stand by confusing the details of different cases in your head. You can be sure that the defense attorney will be reading your report in preparation for trial. You don’t want to put yourself at a disadvantage by being the person who is the least familiar with your report when being cross-examined in front of a jury.
- Own Your Mistakes
When juries are listening to testimony, they are making judgments about who to believe. You want to be seen by them as trustworthy and honest. One of the biggest ways to do this is to own up to your mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, so you will have some cases in which you make mistakes. You can guarantee that the defense attorney will find them and make a big deal out of them. By admitting you made a mistake, you can take away much of his thunder while winning over the jury.
It doesn’t matter if the mistake is a typo in your report, relying on erroneous information, not following protocol, or making a judgment call that turned out to be wrong. The important thing is to show the jury that you recognize you made a mistake and own up to it. If you try to deny it was a mistake, make excuses for it, or blame it on someone else, you will lose credibility and make the jury doubt everything you did and everything you say.
- Be Honest about Your Emotions
It is ok to acknowledge your emotions in the courtroom. If you are testifying for the first time and are extremely nervous, you can say that. If you work the midnight shift and have been up for 18 straight hours, it’s ok to admit that you are tired. If you were scared at a shooting scene, there’s nothing wrong with admitting that to the jury. Being honest about your emotions, both at the scene and in the courtroom, will show the jury that you are a real person. This will help them to trust you and understand where you were coming from at the time.
- Be Confident in Your Decisions
You receive a lot of training to enable you to make decisions in stressful situations. If you made a mistake, own up to it. But, if you know you made the right decision, then be confident in that decision. When an attorney starts picking you apart later, stick to your guns and defend your decision. You rely on your training, experience, and gut instincts to make those decisions, so be confident in them when you are attacked in the courtroom. If you are confident in what you did, the jury is more likely to also be confident in your decisions.
- Explain Your Reasons
The ability to explain the reasons for your decisions can be the difference between the judge letting a piece of evidence in or not. When it comes to police work, you have more experience and training than anyone else in that courtroom. You are the expert on the subject. So, it is vital that you can explain why you did what you did. Sometimes, it may be difficult to verbalize your reasons because you rely on your instincts, but you must dig deep to find the words. Explain to the jury why you got concerned when the suspect wouldn’t show his hands. What was your reason for approaching on the right side of the car as opposed to the left side? What were you thinking as you walked up to the man screaming at the crying woman? Why were you concerned about the passenger who kept looking back at you?
Being able to explain the reasons for your decisions will help the jury to see the case through your eyes and understand what was going on at the time you were making those decisions. It will help them to see the importance of certain details they may otherwise miss.
- Listen to the Question Asked
This is an important skill for anyone who is testifying. Listen to the question and answer that question only. Make the attorneys do their job by asking the right questions. Many times, officers find themselves arguing with defense attorneys because they answered a question that wasn’t asked. Additionally, there may be some information that the judge has ruled inadmissible. By only answering the question asked, you will be less likely to say something that the jury shouldn’t hear. You don’t know what has gone on in the courtroom when other witnesses were testifying, so let the attorneys decide what information the jury needs to hear from you.
- Don’t Agree for the Sake of Agreement
On cross-examination, attorneys love to get the witness in the habit of agreeing with them. They will ask a series of questions that they know you will agree with and then ask you a controversial question in hopes that you will say yes out of habit. This is another reason why you need to listen carefully to the question asked. And don’t just agree out of habit! Just because the answer to the last 8 questions was yes doesn’t mean the answer to question #9 will also be yes.
If you are confident in your decisions, and you have explained your reasons, then stick to it! Don’t just agree to avoid the argument or because you have agreed to everything else. If you say one thing on direct examination and then say the opposite on cross, the jury will see you as unsure of yourself. So, stand by the decisions you know were the right ones to make.
- Don’t Argue for the Sake of Arguing
Just as you shouldn’t agree out of habit, you also shouldn’t argue with the defense attorney just because he represents the defendant. You want to give the defense attorney as much respect as you do the prosecutor, so the jury will see you as being fair and impartial. Don’t argue for the sake of arguing. The defense attorney will ask you some things that you should agree with. When he does, agree. He may ask you some of the same things that the prosecutor asked you. If you disagree with him on these things, you look like you have a dog in this fight. If he asks you something basic, like is the sky blue, and you disagree, then you appear unreasonable. If he points out a mistake that you made, then agree that it was a mistake. When you agree with the defense attorney on those things that you reasonably should agree with, you will look like a fair officer who is just calling it like you see it.
- Don’t Guess
Lastly, don’t guess. If you don’t know the answer to a question, it is acceptable to say “I don’t know.” You take an oath to tell the truth, so if you don’t know, don’t guess. Most of the time, when you guess, you make things worse. Admitting that you don’t know will, once again, make you look honest and straightforward to the jury. Many times, there will be a very good reason for you not knowing the answer to a specific question. Defense attorneys love to ask officers what their client was doing or thinking before the officer arrived on scene. There is no way you could know that. So, don’t guess. Everyone in the courtroom will understand why you don’t know the answer to that question.
You may not like testifying, but at some point, you will have to do it. Hopefully, these tips will help to make you less nervous while also making you a better witness in front of the jury. Good luck on your next trial.