Being a Witness
The following material is reproduced from the manual "You're Going to be a Witness. What Now?", produced by the State Bar of Michigan.
You’re a Witness - Now What?
Someday you may be called as a witness in a court proceeding. You may have seen a car accident or witnessed a crime, or you may be directly involved in a trial. You may be appearing voluntarily or, in some cases, you may be served with a subpoena summoning you to appear in court. You have to obey a subpoena or suffer legal penalties.
Whether you are required to appear or do so voluntarily, you should cooperate and take the job seriously. Your testimony will be important to a fair and just trial.
These suggestions may help when you appear as a witness:
Don’t let the strange and formal environment of the courtroom upset your composure. Be yourself and stay as relaxed as possible.
Be On Time
The Court must handle many cases. Your tardiness could seriously interfere with the court’s schedule.
Court business is a serious matter. Dress accordingly.
Don’t lounge and slump. Sit upright in the witness chair and be alert. Listen carefully to every question. If you don’t understand something, ask to have it repeated as many times as necessary. Don’t answer a question you don’t understand. Answer directly, thoughtfully, and truthfully.
No matter which side called you as a witness; be polite and courteous to the Judge or the lawyer asking the questions. Hold your temper and never argue with the person questioning you. It could reflect on your believability and tend to lessen the importance of your testimony.
Do Not Volunteer Anything
Answer only the question being asked. If a simple "yes" or "no" cannot answer it, then answer in more detail, but stick to the question and don’t go beyond it.
Do Not Guess
Answer only what you know or saw yourself. Do not speculate or guess. If you do not know the answer to a particular question, just say so and wait for the next question. There’s no need to apologize.
Do Not Talk Out of Turn
Sometimes one of the lawyers may object to a question being asked. This is the lawyer’s right. The objection may be raised before you answer, or while you are answering. When this happens, stop talking right away. The Judge will rule on the objection, and then instruct you whether or not to answer.
Speak to the Jury
If the case is being tried before a jury; direct your answers to them. If it is a case without a jury, answer so that the Judge can hear and see you. Eye contact helps to establish your relationship with the Judge and jury.
Don’t mumble or be vague. The court reporter must be able to record every word. Each juror needs to hear the answers. Speak in a clear and confident tone of voice.
Correct Any Mistakes
A wrong answer should be corrected immediately. Unclear answers should be fully explained. Everything goes on the transcript. Don’t be embarrassed or hesitate to correct and answer during the time you are on the witness stand. Anyone can make a mistake.
Always Tell the Truth
Every court case is a search for the truth, for what happened. As a witness you are under oath. You are expected to tell the truth always, to the best of your knowledge. The penalties for untruthful testimony are severe.
As a witness you are an essential part of the trial. It may be very inconvenient for you to take time off and come to court and testify, but remember that the day may come when you need someone to appear as a witness on your behalf, to help you protect your rights under the law.
As with most things, the system of justice is not perfect. But it is the best there is and every citizen has a responsibility to make it work. When you serve as a witness or a juror, you help make the system of justice work.