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How to Testify in Criminal Court When You Are the Defendant

If you are a defendant in a trial and you are called to the stand to testify, it will only be by your lawyer.  The prosecution cannot order you to testify at trial and cannot call you to the stand in front of the jury. If this occurs, it is grounds for immediate mistrial – meaning that the trial will stop at that point and the case will be set for a new trial.

Direct Examination
If you are going to testify, your lawyer will call you to the stand and ask you questions about the criminal charge against you and allow you tell your side of the story.  This is called “direct examination.”  Your lawyer cannot lead you when you are answering questions, so you need to understand what your lawyer wants from you.  For example,  if your lawyer wants you to say you were not drinking on the night of the incident, he or she cannot ask you – “Isn’t it true you were not drinking that night?” – instead your attorney can ask “were you drinking that night?” allowing you to answer “No” and offer any explanation.

Cross Examination

After your testimony, you cannot leave the stand.  You are now required to answer the questions of the district attorney. This is called the “cross examination.” During the cross examination, the district attorney will try to lead you into the area where he or she wants to go.  For example, the district attorney may ask you about your criminal history or may question you about any possible inconsistencies in your statements.

Try to Remain Calm

It is very important to maintain your composure while be cross examined.  Be polite and do not get angry or agitated.  Often the defendant will feel like they are being bullied or attacked by the district attorney, and in some cases, this is true.  But it is important to maintain an even level of emotion and answer the questions clearly and with a certain earnestness. What you are trying to convey to the jury is that you are not hiding anything, are there to answer the questions, and are innocent of the charges.  If you appear to be nervous, angry, emotional and upset at the district attorney’s questions, the jury could feel that there is some truth to the allegations against you.

How to Answer the Questions Properly
To review, your attorney calls you on direct examination. You answer your attorney’s questions clearly and loudly. If possible, look to the jury when you answer the questions.  If the judge asks you a question, look to the judge and never interrupt the judge.  Always answer questions with no sir and yes sir and if you need to explain your answer, do so.  The next portion will be the cross examination by the district attorney.  In most cases during the cross examination, you will want to keep your answers short and to the point.  Answer the questions politely and do not get angry and emotional.

You only get one fair trial, so you need to make sure you have a trial lawyer who is experienced in criminal defense. Your lawyer should properly prepare you to testify in your defense. In many cases, I have practiced the direct examination and cross examination with my clients —  I let them know what I am going to ask them and tell them what questions the district attorney is likely to ask.  A good criminal defense lawyer is looking for the truth to present to the jury, and you can help your defense by answering the questions in the correct manner.

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