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Preparing to Testify


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 at one of the other hearings held in connection with the 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.

The United States Department of Justice and the United States Attorney's Office in the District of North Dakota have taken steps to make the participation by witnesses more effective and meaningful. One of these steps is the preparation of this brochure. We hope that it will provide the answers to many of your questions and will give you sufficient general information to understand your rights and responsibilities.

Thank you for your cooperation with our office and for your service as a witness. We appreciate the sacrifice of time that being a witness requires.

Testifying in Federal Court

1. Before you testify, try to picture the crime scene—the objects there, the distances, and exactly what happened so that you can recall the facts more accurately when you are asked. 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.

2. Speak in your own words. Don't try to memorize what you are going to say. Be yourself. Prior to trial, go over in your own mind those matters about which you will be questioned.

3. There is no dress code in a courtroom; however, it is important to dress in a manner that shows respect for the courtroom proceedings.

4. Avoid distracting mannerisms such as chewing gum while testifying.

5. From the moment you enter the courtroom or courthouse, your behavior should be appropriate to the seriousness of the proceedings.

6. 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.

7. When you are called to testify, you will first be sworn in or affirmed. When you take the oath or affirmation say, "I do" clearly.

8. Most important of all, you are sworn to TELL THE TRUTH. 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. If you don't understand the question, say so. Don't make up an answer.

9. Do not exaggerate. 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.

10. When a witness gives testimony, he/she is first asked some questions by the lawyer who called the witness to the stand. In this case, it is an Assistant United States Attorney. 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. Do not lose your temper. Always be courteous even if the lawyer questioning you appears discourteous.

11. Jurors are the ones who decide the facts of the case. Always speak clearly and loudly so that every juror can easily hear you.

12. Do not nod your head for a "yes" or "no" answer. Speak so that the court reporter (or recording device) can hear the answer.

13. If you don't understand the question asked by any of the attorneys, ask the attorney to repeat or rephrase the question so that you understand exactly what is being asked.

14. Give the answer in your own words, and if a question can't be truthfully answered with a simple "yes" or "no," ask to explain your answer.

15. Answer ONLY the questions asked you. Do not volunteer information not actually asked for.

16. 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?"

17. The judge and the jury are interested in the facts that you have observed or personally know about. Therefore, don't give your conclusions and opinions, and don't state what someone else told you, unless you are specifically asked.

18. 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.

19. 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 why you were mistaken. The jury, like the rest of us, understands that people make honest mistakes.

20. 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.

21. 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.

22. Sometimes an attorney may ask this question:  "Have you talked to anyone about this case?" It is perfectly proper for you to have talked with the prosecutor, police, or family members before you testify, and you should respond truthfully to this question. Say very frankly that you have talked with whomever you have talked with—the Assistant United States Attorney, the victim, relatives, or anyone else. All that we want you to do is to tell the truth.

23. After a witness has testified in court, he/she should not tell other witnesses what was said during the testimony until after the case is over. Thus, do not ask other witnesses about their testimony and do not volunteer information about your own.

 If you have any questions or problems related to a case, please click on the "Contact Victim Witness Services Staff" link below or contact the Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the case.

Contact Victim Witness Services Staff

Updated February 9, 2015

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