Don’t Show the Damage

You asked the “Why” question on cross-examination. And, you just learned why it is a commandment that you should never ask a “why” question on cross. You learned that you opened the door for the expert witness who is now expounding on the other side’s case theory. You wish you could go hide under counsel table. But, that’s not an option.

Don’t let the jury see you bleed. Remain calm, and don’t let the damage register on your face. The jurors are constantly watching you. If you reveal how much the witness’s answer hurt, it will just compound the harm. Even worse, your crushed reaction may turn the jury against you and your client. It’s to your advantage to maintain a poker face.

Don’t Be Cross and Don’t Get Ahead of the Jury

Axiom for cross-examination: You don’t have to be cross to cross-examine. James W. McElhaney in McElhaney’s Trial Notebook put it this way when discussing quarreling with a witness on cross: “. . . Once again, the hallmark of poor cross-examination is arguing over unessential details.

“Part of the problem of the needless quarrel is the demeanor of the cross-examiner. Usually it is not a good idea to ask questions in an accusatorial manner. The jury has a lot of sympathy with the person in the witness box. The advantage of the lawyer in being able to ask questions and insist on answers to them is obvious to the jury. Unnecessary hostility is likely to backfire.

“Yet there may be a time for a raised eyebrow, a series of rapid fire questions or even righteous indignation. To some extent the jury gets its cue from counsel how to respond to the testimony, and you should not neglect this role. The problem is to strike the proper balance without putting on a transparent act. One good way to approach this balance is to keep from being hostile with a witness even one you know is lying, unless the jury can see you have a good reason for it.”

Another way to express this principle is: Never get ahead of the jury. In other words, don’t go after a witness harshly unless you are convinced the jury thinks the witness deserves it.

Don’t Be Nasty

In On Trial: Lessons from a Lifetime in the Courtroom, Henry G. Miller states: “A soft word turneth away wrath. A smile can disarm the most hostile witness. Be courteous and fair to all witnesses and by your decency carry the jury with you. I believe these sentiments and try to practice them.”

Be a Seeker of Truth and Show It

The proper demeanor for the cross-examiner is to be professional and a seeker of truth. As a seeker of truth, you may ask tough questions. While jurors do sympathize with witnesses who are being subjected to cross, witnesses differ and so must the cross-examiner’s demeanor. When cross-examining the vulnerable witness, such as a child, counsel’s manner normally should be solicitous. On the other hand, when cross-examining an expert witness, particularly one who is gives evasive answers, counsel’s demeanor may be more assertive. Again, never get out ahead of the jury.

Be Confident

Henry G. Miller in On Trial offers another sound piece of advice: “Act Like You’re Getting Somewhere. Great cross-examiners always act as if they’re getting somewhere. They start smartly. They finish smartly. They exude confidence. They seem to find guilty inferences in every answer, no matter how innocent.”