When “Coaching” Your Witness Blows Up in Your Face

I learned in law school that lawyers should be very careful about “coaching” witnesses. The story below illustrates that putting words in a witness’s mouth can blow up in your face. Let them testify in their own words.

My Admonition to Every Witness

Background: As a prosecutor I gave all of my witnesses, including police officers, the same four-part admonition.

  • First, make sure you hear and understand the question.
  • Second, answer the question that’s asked, and only the question that’s asked.
  • Third, don’t be afraid to say: “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.”
  • Fourth, above all else, tell the truth. If we can’t win on the truth, we don’t deserve to win.

“Coached Witness” Ruins the Prosecution

Woody Deem was a legendary Ventura County District Attorney and BYU law professor. He had degrees in law and theater arts. He was brilliant and flamboyant, a perfect combination for a trial lawyer. In court he was unbeatable.

Professor Deem shared the following story of a child molestation case he prosecuted. During his interview with the little girl, the following dialogue took place:

DA: Tell me what happened?
Victim: He took me into the garage and closed the door.
DA: Then what happened?
Victim: He lifted my dress and pulled down my underwear.
DA: What happened next?
Victim: He put his “jollywacker” in my “dingdong.
DA:  The jurors might not understand if you say “He put his jollywacker in your dingdong.” You should say instead, “He put his private parts in my private parts.”
Victim: He put his private parts in my private parts.
DA: Good. Now remember that.

The jury had been selected and Woody Deem called the child victim as his first witness.  As she walked to the witness stand, he heard her quietly muttering under her breath, “Private parts.“Private parts.”  

Deem went through the preliminary questions about the garage, dress, and underwear.  Then he asked her the crucial question, “What happened next?”

Her answer would be the most important in the entire case. Her answer would nail down the elements of the crime and the conviction. 

A the jury waited in suspense, the girl paused for a long time, looked at Woody Deem and said, I . . . forgot . . . what . . . you . . . told . . . me . . . to . . . say?”  Boom! The End.

(More “Court Case Friday”stories at http://www.londonedition.net)

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