Legal Information

At the Hearing

How do I “cross-examine” a witness?

Cross-examining a witness can be very difficult, even for lawyers who have spent a lot of time in court. The purpose of cross-examination is to create doubt about the truthfulness of the witness’s testimony, especially as it applies to the incidents that are at issue in the case. Cross-examination questions are usually the opposite of direct examination questions. In a direct examination, you have to ask the witness open-ended questions that allow them to fully explain their answer. A cross- examination question should be very pointed and requires only a one-word answer, preferably “yes” or “no.”

Questions related to prior testimony
The questions that you ask on cross-examination have to be related, in some way, to the issues that the witness talked about during direct examination. You can use cross-examination to point out inconsistencies in the witness’s story. By highlighting testimony that does not add up, you can cast a light of doubt on everything that the witness has said. Here is an example of this type of cross-examination line of questioning where you first confirm what the witness said on direct and then point out inconsistencies:

  • You: Didn’t you testify that you saw me with my husband at the park on Saturday and that he did not hit me?
    • Witness: Yes, that’s what I said.
  • You: And you said that you took the blue line bus to get to the park that day?
    • Witness: Yes, that’s true.
  • You: Isn’t it true that the blue line bus does not run on weekends?
    • Witness: Uh, yes – it only runs during the week.
  • You: No further questions Your Honor.

As you can see, once you have put the witness into a position where his/her testimony comes into doubt, you do not want to ask another question to allow him/her to clarify or provide an explanation. It is best to end the cross-examination and let the doubt linger or move onto a different line of questioning. Sometimes a great cross-examination isn’t defined by the questions that you do ask, it is defined by the questions that you keep yourself from asking.

Questions related to underlying motivation or bias
Your cross-examination can also include questions about the witness’s underlying motivations for testifying or any bias that the witness may have in favor of the other party or against you. For example, you could ask:

  • Isn’t it true that you owe the other party money? And isn’t it your hope that he will forgive the loan if you testify for him today?
  • Isn’t it true that the other party is dating your sister? And so you want to get on the other party’s good side by testifying for him today?
  • Isn’t it true that I broke up with you in high school? And you were so upset you promised to get back at me some day?

Questions related to crimes involving dishonesty
You can also ask questions that would show that the witness has been convicted of a crime involving dishonesty, which is known as a “crime involving moral turpitude.” These types of convictions could make a judge think the witness is less believable (credible). However, be careful to only ask these questions if you know that the person was convicted. For example, you could ask:

  • Isn’t it true that you have been convicted of fraud?
  • Weren’t you convicted of writing bad checks?

The questions in the last two categories, above, all suggest that the witness has a reason to not be truthful or hasn’t been truthful in the past. If you are asking questions like this though, you want to make sure that you know the answer before you ask and that you are only asking the questions that will be answered in a way to help your case.

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