How To Witness
Whether you are a witness to a crime or dispute or have some expert knowledge in a certain field, chances are you may be served a subpoena to testify in court at least once in your lifetime. Here's what you can expect from the process.
Imagine the following scenario: You overhear your boss having a heated argument with a client over a business matter. Words are exchanged, followed by threats of legal action. Weeks go by, and the matter is never discussed again. That is, until someone approaches you and asks if you are indeed Mr. or Ms. X. That document now in your hand has now made you a subpoenaed witness to a court proceeding. You are now expected to appear in a certain courtroom on a specified day. You get the distinct impression that you had better show up.
This scenario, and many others like it, is played out every day somewhere in this country. Courtroom proceedings depend heavily on witnesses in order to settle claims or prosecute criminals. You may have a valid excuse to escape jury duty, but chances are pretty slim that you can escape a subpoena. If you are ever called to be a witness, here are some things you can expect to happen before, during and after your courtroom appearance.
1. Sides will be chosen. Your subpoena either came from the plaintiffs, those making the charges, or the defendants, those trying to prove that the charges have no merit. In some instances, the court itself may subpoena an expert for testimony, but in general you have been chosen by one side or the other to offer testimony that will help their case. It's best to know which side has actually issued the subpoena, so you can be prepared for the possibility of divided loyalties. In the hypothetical scenario of the boss and client argument, the client may have subpoenaed you to testify to the angry actions of your boss. As much as you would love to stay in your employer's good graces, you may have to state facts in court that will hurt his defense. You may word your answers very diplomatically, but you are also sworn to tell the entire truth despite the consequences. This is a tough position to be placed in, so you should spend the time leading up to your testimony reconciling your sworn duty as a witness with your real world obligations to those you may be testifying for or against.
2. Expect some coaching. If you are a witness for the defense, you may be called into a meeting with the defendant and his or her attorney. At this informal meeting, the attorney might explain the defense's basic argument and where you fit into that picture. The same holds true if you are on the plaintiff's side. Different attorney, same tactics. No ethical attorney will ever knowingly ask a witness to lie, but you may find yourself putting a bigger spin on the truth than you thought. An argument may have been 'boisterous' or 'spirited', not heated or malicious. Did you actually hear the defendant threaten to harm the plaintiff, or could you have taken some words out of context? Coaching a witness is a very common practice, but some opposing counsel may make an issue of your responses if they sound too rehearsed. At these coaching sessions, be prepared to have your own testimony attacked much in the same way an opposing counselor would.
3. The excrutiating wait in the hallway. Once the day of the trial arrives, you may be asked to appear outside the courtroom at 9:00 am. A few witnesses may be called ahead of you, so you'll have to wait for a while. By 12:00, you'll be ready to eat the chairs. At 2:00 pm the attorney will tell you that your time is close at hand. At 4:00 pm, you may be told that court is adjourned for the day and you'll have to come back tomorrow. So you take another day off work and show up at 9:00 am once again. You might avoid this process, but be prepared for it nonetheless. Court proceedings are a series of delays and testimony, followed by even more delays and even less testimony. You may be tempted to strike up conversation with that other witness sitting across the way. BE CAREFUL. Talk about the weather, the boredom, sports, music or religion, but DO NOT discuss the specifics of your testimony with anyone you don't know. They may very well be rebuttal witnesses who would love to know what your testimony will be.
4. Actual testimony, for a nice change of pace. Following the long wait outside the courthouse door, you are finally ready to offer your testimony. You will usually be led to a seat facing the judge or on his side. The first few questions asked by the 'friendly' attorney will be short and official. Verify your name, your title, your relationship with the defendant/plaintiff. Then you will be asked the most vital questions- What did you hear the defendant say on the day in question, Where was the plaintiff, How can you be sure you heard this statement, etc... Answer according to your own heart and conscience, because you'll be the one facing perjury charges, not the attorney asking the questions. After you have answered the first set of questions, be prepared for a second set of more adversarial questions. Don't become rattled if these questions seem to be pointing out areas of deception on your part. If you gave truthful testimony, then the opposing counsel's questions should only point out minor discrepancies between various witnesses, not major lies on your behalf. If another co-worker believes the argument started at 9:15 and you say 9:30, you shouldn't be accused of perjury. Once your testimony has been given, you are absolutely free to leave the building.
5. Post-trial examination. You may be called back into the 'friendly' attorney's office for some after-the-fact examinations. They may thank you for your time and honesty, or they may imply that your testimony was not quite as helpful as they had hoped. Either way, you did your sworn duty to the best of your ability, so if the eventual outcome was not to their liking it is not your fault. Unlike television crime shows that show dramatic testimony being offered by emotional actors, most real life testimony is only persuasive when viewed as a whole. No one witness will provide every detail necessary to obtain a conviction or judgement. You may second-guess your own performance as a witness for a while after the trial, but rest assured that every other witness may feel the same anxiety. It may help to discuss your feelings of anxiety with a trusted friend or counselor. Many witnesses have difficulty reconciling their honest testimony with the fallout it may have inadvertently caused. Find a perspective that works for you, and move on with your own life.