One of the responsibilities of citizenship for those who have knowledge about the commission of a crime is to serve as witnesses at the criminal trial or other hearings held in connection with a criminal prosecution. The federal criminal justice system cannot function without the participation of witnesses. The complete cooperation and truthful testimony of all witnesses are essential to the proper determination of guilt or innocence in a criminal case.
If you have to serve as a witness, remember that your assistance is greatly needed and appreciated by our office and the community.
Why am I a witness? I didn't see a crime occur.
Witnesses are not limited to "eye witnesses." You may have seen or heard the crime happen, or you may know something about it. You may also know something about a piece of evidence, or know something that contradicts another witness' testimony.
You may not think that what you know about the case is very significant. However, small pieces of information are often required to determine what really happened. If you wonder why you are testifying in a particular case, ask the Assistant United States Attorney handling the case.
Will I have to bring anything with me?
If you need to bring anything as evidence, you will be instructed to do so in the subpoena or by the Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case.
What if the defendant's attorney or investigator ask to talk to me?
You have the right to decide whether you want to discuss the case with any attorney or investigator for either the United States or the defense. Be sure you know who you are talking to when you discuss the case. Don't be afraid to ask for identification. If you decided to speak about the case, the most important thing to remember is to tell the truth. You may set the terms for any interview, including having the prosecutor present.
Will I be paid for my time spent as a witness?
You will receive a $40 witness fee for each day your are required to be in court, or attend a pretrial interview, including travel days. You will not be reimbursed for lost wages. In addition, all legitimate travel expenses related to your testimony will be paid for or reimbursed by the government. You will be reimbursed for travel by the least expensive method available. If your testimony requires you to travel by plane or stay overnight, your travel will be arranged through the government travel agency and your airfare and lodging costs will be paid directly by the government. DO NOT MAKE ANY TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS UNTIL YOU HAVE SPOKEN WITH THE U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE. IF YOU MAKE YOUR OWN TRAVEL ARRANGEMENTS WITHOUT CONSULTING WITH THE USAO, WE MAY BE UNABLE TO REIMBURSE YOU IN FULL FOR YOUR COSTS.
You will be reimbursed for mileage, taxi fare, tolls, and parking. If two or more witnesses travel in the same privately owned vehicle, only one reimbursement for mileage will be made. You will also receive a standard per diem to cover your food costs. The per diem in Seattle is $35.50 for travel days and $71.00 for full days. The per diem in Tacoma is $30.50 for travel days and $61.00 for full days. IF YOU TRAVEL TO COURT AND RETURN HOME THE SAME DAY, YOU WILL NOT RECEIVE THE PER DIEM. You will be provided with a form when you testify which you will use to claim reimbursement for your expenses. You will receive payment by mail. Please contact the Victim-Witness Program staff to determine your specific entitlement under the law.
RENTAL VEHICLES AND OTHER SPECIAL EXPENSES WILL NOT BE REIMBURSED WITHOUT JUSTIFICATION AND APPROVAL IN ADVANCE.
What about my employer?
Many witnesses question how to approach their employer about their absence from work during testimony. If requested, we will contact your employer and outline your responsibility as a subpoenaed federal witness. Employers may not retaliate against you because of your absence.
What will happen if I fail to appear?
If you fail to appear, you may be cited for contempt of court. An arrest warrant could be issued. If you have concerns about appearing, it is important that you contact the attorney on the case or the victim-witness unit as soon as possible.
Do I have to testify in front of the defendant?
If you are testifying before the grand jury, no defendant is present. If you are testifying at a criminal trial, the defendant must be present in court to hear what all the witnesses say about him or her. The representative for the defendant is called the defense attorney, and he or she will ask you questions after the Assistant United States Attorney is done questioning you.
Who can be with me in court?
You may bring friends or relatives with you to court, and they can probably sit in court while you testify, unless they are also witnesses. A Victim-Witness Program Advocate may also be present in court with you, if you request.
What if I am threatened by the defendant or others?
Threatening a witness is a separate federal crime, and a matter which we take very seriously. However, it actually happens very rarely. In emergency situations, call the police immediately. In other instances, contact the Assistant United States Attorney or case agent assigned to the case, or contact the Victim-Witness Unit.
Where do I go?
There are two federal courthouses in the Western District of Washington, one in Seattle and one in Tacoma. The Western District of Washington U.S. District Court website provides the:
Your subpoena will indicate which courthouse, what courtroom, and when the proceedings will take place. However, as the court date approaches, you will be contacted by the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Victim-Witness Coordinator, case agent, or other support staff and provided with information on the exact location, date and time you will be needed.
Please check to verify that your attendance is required. Call the AUSA or support staff person assigned to your case the WORK DAY BEFORE you leave your residence to attend court. Court dates can be postponed or cancelled at very short notice, and verifying your attendance may prevent a wasted trip.
Where can I park?
Please note that parking is a problem at the Seattle Federal Courthouse, located downtown at 700 Stewart Street. It is in the heart of the Seattle business district and there is no parking provided at the courthouse. There are parking garages located nearby. You will be reimbursed for this expense. There is also short term metered parking on the streets around the courthouse. However, we recommend you park in a parking lot or parking garage, as we will not reimburse you for any parking tickets you may receive.
How long will I be in court?
It is impossible to predict how long witnesses will need to be at the courthouse, or exactly how long particular testimony may take. The Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting the case will try and give you a general idea of how long you may be on the stand. We will also try to minimize the total time you are needed at court, but it is important that you arrange your schedule to allow maximum flexibility. You may have to wait several hours or more for your turn to testify, and unexpected events can delay court proceedings. You may want to bring reading materials, or something else to occupy your time, while you wait to testify. Do not park on the street at a meter; we do not pay for parking tickets.
What should I do if I have children who need care while I am gone?
Try to find a relative, friend or neighbor to care for your children. You should make sure that he/she has a flexible schedule, as your testimony may take longer than expected. The courthouse does not have child care facilities, and is not an appropriate place for young children. If you are having difficulties securing child care, please contact the victim-witness staff for assistance.
Is food available at the courthouse?
The Seattle courthouse has a café in the basement of the building. The Tacoma courthouse does not. There are several restaurants located within walking distance from both courthouses, and there will be a long enough break at mid-day for you to go and get lunch. With permission of the court staff, food and drink may be allowed in the witness room, but food is NOT allowed in the courtroom.
Where are the bathrooms?
There are bathrooms located on each floor of the courthouse.
Tips for Testifying
- Tell the truth. This is the single most important advice any witness should remember. When you are called to testify, you will first be required to take an oath or affirmation to tell the truth. When you take the oath or affirmation, say "I do" clearly. When you are asked questions, every true fact should be readily admitted. Do not stop to figure out whether your answer will help or hurt either side. Just answer the questions to the best of your memory.
- Be prepared. You should know days or weeks ahead of time that you will be testifying. Before you testify, think about the incident and what happened, so that you can recall the details accurately when you are asked in court. If the question is about distances or time, and if your answer is only an estimate, be sure you say it is only an estimate. Beware of suggestions by attorneys as to distances or times when you do not recall the actual time or distance. Do not agree with their estimate unless you independently arrive at the same estimate.
- Speak in your own words. Don't try to memorize what you are going to say. Doing so will make your testimony sound rehearsed and unconvincing. Instead, just be yourself. Prior to the trial or hearing, go over in your own mind those matters about which you will be questioned.
- Dress neatly. There is no dress code in a courtroom. However, it is important to have a neat appearance, and to dress in a manner that shows respect for the courtroom proceedings. An appearance that seems very casual or overly dressy may distract the jury during the brief time you are on the stand, and they may not concentrate on your testimony. Hats should not be worn in the courtroom.
- Avoid distracting mannerisms while testifying. Avoid chewing gum, candy, or other objects that may make you difficult to understand. Present your testimony clearly, slowly, and loud enough so that the juror seated farthest away from you can easily hear and understand everything you say.
- Do not speak to jurors or discuss the case outside of the courtroom. Jurors who are or will be sitting on the case in which you are a witness may be present in the same public areas of the courthouse where you will be. For that reason, you should not discuss the case with anyone. Remember, too, that jurors may have an opportunity to observe how you act outside the courtroom. If you see a juror, you are not allowed to speak to the juror, even to say hello.
- Conduct yourself in a dignified manner. From the moment you enter the courtroom or courthouse, your behavior should be appropriate to the seriousness of the proceedings. When you are called into court for any reason, be serious and avoid saying anything about the case until you are actually on the witness stand. Also, do not read in the courtroom, unless asked to do so by the judge or the attorneys.
- Do not exaggerate or guess. Don't make overly broad statements that you may have to correct. Be particularly careful in responding to a question that begins, "Wouldn't you agree that...?" The explanation should be in your own words. Do not allow an attorney to put words in your mouth. Give positive, definite answers when at all possible. Avoid saying "I think," "I believe," or "In my opinion." If you do not remember certain details, it is best to say that you don't remember. If you don't understand the question, say so. Don't make up an answer.
- Expect to be questioned by several people. One of the basic rules in a criminal case is that both sides have a chance to question every witness. Questions asked by both sides have the same goal - to find out what is true. When a witness gives testimony, he or she is first asked some questions by the lawyer who called the witness to the stand. If you have been called by the U.S. Attorney's Office, this attorney is the Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA). This is called the "direct examination." The witness is then questioned by the defense lawyer in "cross examination." Sometimes the process is repeated two or three times to help clear up any confusion. The basic purpose of direct examination is for you to tell the judge and jury what you know about the case. The basic purpose of cross-examination is to raise doubts about the accuracy of your testimony. If you feel you are being doubted in cross-examination, remember that to raise doubt is the defense counsel's job. Try not to take questions personally or be upset by an attorney's questions. Always be courteous, even if the lawyer questioning you appears discourteous. A witness who is angry or upset may appear to be less than objective. Do not appear to be a "wise guy" or you will lose the respect of the judge and the jury. If you are testifying before the grand jury, there will not be a defense attorney present. However, you may be asked questions by members of the grand jury.
- Jurors are ordinary people, just like you. Although you are responding to the questions of a lawyer, remember that the questions and answers are really for the jury's benefit. Jurors are the ones who decide the facts of the case. Always speak clearly and loudly, so that every juror can hear you.
- Listen carefully to the questions that you are asked. Understand the question (have it repeated, if necessary), then give a thoughtful, considered answer. Do not give an answer without thinking. While answers should not be rushed, neither should there be an unnaturally long delay to a simple question if you know the answer.
- Answer the questions verbally. Do not nod your head for a "yes" or "no" answer. Speak out loud, so that the court reporter can hear the answer. For the same reason, try to avoid words like "yah," "nope," and "uh-huh."
- Answer only the questions asked. Do not volunteer information which has not actually been asked of you. If you don't understand the question asked by one of the attorneys, ask the attorney to repeat or rephrase the question so that you understand exactly what is being asked.
- Answer all questions to the point. If the question cannot be truthfully answered with a simple "yes" or "no," ask to explain your answer. If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately. If your answer was not clear, clarify it immediately. If you realize you have answered incorrectly, say, "May I correct something I said earlier?"
- Stick to the facts. The judge and the jury are interested in the facts that you have observed or about which you have personal knowledge. Therefore, don't give your conclusions and opinions, and don't state what someone else told you, unless you are specifically asked. Unless certain, don't say "That's all of the conversation" or "Nothing else happened." Instead, you might say, "That's all I recall" or "That's all I remember happening." It may be that after more thought or another question, you will remember something important.
- Mistakes happen. Sometimes, witnesses give inconsistent testimony - something they said before doesn't agree with something they said later. If this happens to you, don't get flustered. Just explain honestly whey you were mistaken. The jury, like the rest of us, understands that people make honest mistakes.
- Follow the judge's instructions at all times. Stop instantly when the judge interrupts you, or when an attorney objects to a question, and wait for the judge to tell you to continue.
- Don't start to answer a question until the question is finished. If you haven't heard the entire question, you don't really know what you are being asked. In addition, sometimes an attorney may raise an objection to the question being asked. "Objection" is a legal term that means one of the attorneys feels you are being asked an improper kind of question. When you hear a lawyer say "objection," simply stop speaking and wait for the judge to rule on the objection. If the judge decides the question is proper, he or she will overrule the objection. If the judge decides the question is not proper, he or she will sustain the objection. You will be told either by the judge or the attorney whether to go ahead and answer the question. Sometimes the judge and attorneys will need to talk just amongst themselves. A "sidebar" is when the judge and the attorneys meet at the judge's bench to discuss various matters, including technical disputes over the Federal Rules of Evidence. They meet at the judge's bench so that the jury cannot hear their discussion.
- Do not talk about your testimony with other witnesses. After a witness has testified in court, he or she should not tell other witnesses what was said during the testimony until after the case is over. Do not ask other witnesses about their testimony, and do not volunteer information about your own. Sometimes an attorney may ask if you have talked to anybody about the case. It is perfectly proper for you to have talked to people before you testified, such as the prosecutor or your family or friends, and you should respond truthfully to this question.