If you have to testify…
- Tell the truth! This is the single most important advice any witness should remember.
- Dress neatly! A neat appearance and proper dress in court give an important first, and lasting, impression.
- Conduct yourself in a dignified manner! The trial of a criminal case is a serious matter.
- Be prepared! You should know days or weeks ahead of time that you will be testifying in court. Think about the incident and what happened so that you can recall the details accurately when you are asked in court. If you need help remembering these details, write the facts down. If you have already written a statement for the police, ask the prosecutor for a copy; reading it may jog your memory on some details. Think ahead of time about the answers you will give to the questions you expect will be asked.
- Do not try to memorize what you will say in court. Jurors are hesitant to believe testimony that sounds “scripted”. Also, the lawyers’ questions may not coincide with your expected answers.
- Stick to the facts! The judge or jury only wants to hear the facts as you know them to be, not what someone else told you.
- Relax … speak clearly! You have nothing to fear when giving true answers. When you are asked questions, give your answer as clearly as possible.
- 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.
- Do not lose your temper. Be courteous. Don’t let the defense lawyer upset you. It may seem at times that he is trying to pin you down, but he has the right to test how many of the facts you know and accurately remember.
- Don’t start to answer a question until the question is finished. If you haven’t yet heard the entire question, you don’t really know what you’re being asked. Don’t “jump the gun” by answering what you think the question will be (when it is finished).
- Think about your answer before you give it. Your every word counts. Be descriptive. Be accurate. Vague or inconsistent responses give other people a chance to (mis)interpret what you meant your answer to be.
- Answer all questions to the point. If the question calls for a short answer, give a short answer; if you need to explain, explain.
- Answer only the question asked. Do not volunteer additional information.
- Don’t exaggerate or guess! If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so — If you don’t remember the information that you are asked about, say so.
- Answer the questions verbally. Your testimony is being recorded (either tape recorded or written down). No head shakes or head nods, or “uh-huh” or “uh-uh” instead of saying “yes” or “no”!
- Look at the jurors and speak to them when testifying. Jurors are ordinary people, like yourself. They consider attitude, facial expressions, and body language when evaluating testimony.
- If you don’t understand or didn’t hear the question, ask that it be explained or repeated.
- If your answer was not correctly stated, correct it immediately.
- Never attempt to talk to a juror about the case or any other matter while the case is being tried. This includes chance meetings during recesses, in hallways, at lunch, or any other place.
- If either lawyer raises an objection, stop speaking at once! After the Judge has ruled, you will be instructed whether to continue.
The Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney will assist you with any questions you may have prior to your court appearance.
Why am I a witness? I didn’t see the crime occur.
Witnesses are not limited to “eye witnesses”. You may have seen or heard the crime happen or may know something about it. You may also know something about a piece of evidence, or may 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 Commonwealth’s Attorney handling it (or your Victim Advocate); there is probably a common-sense reason.
Your presence and willingness to testify may be the deciding factor in determining what will be done in the case. Many defendants hope that you or other witnesses will not show up. Your mere presence in the Courtroom before the trial may cause the defendant to plead guilty.
What if someone threatens me?
Concerns about your well-being and safety after being victimized or witnessing a crime are normal. If you have any fears or receive any threats concerning your involvement in a case, you should immediately contact the law enforcement agency that investigated the case, or the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney. In an emergency situation, call 911. Do so as soon as possible so that the threats can be documented and appropriate action taken. There are laws to protect you against people who attempt to bribe, intimidate, threaten, or harass you.
What if the defense attorney contacts me?
In representing a client, a defense attorney may contact you and want to talk to you about the case. Keep in mind that you are not required to talk to anyone about the crime, including the defense attorney or a defense investigator prior to testifying in court. If you choose to do so, always request proper identification and an explanation of the purpose of the interview. If you have any concerns about talking with a defense attorney or investigator, you are encouraged to contact the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney in charge of your case and to have him or her accompany you at the time of the interview.
Do I have to testify in front of the defendant?
The defendant must be present in court to hear what all the witnesses say about him. The defense attorney will ask you questions after the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney is finished.
Who will be with me in court?
You may bring friends or relatives with you to court, and they can probably sit in the courtroom while you testify, unless they are also witnesses. (Witnesses testify one at a time and generally wait outside the courtroom for their turn. This is called “sequestration”.) Our Victim/Witness Advocate may also be with you, if you request.
How long will I be at court?
Your court room time, while actually testifying, may not take long; it depends upon many factors. Most of the time you will just be waiting for your turn to testify. You and your family and friends are encouraged to bring a book or magazine to read while you wait. It is always the goal of the Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney to get you in and out of the courthouse in as quick a time as possible. Unfortunately, this is seldom a quick process and witnesses often wait several hours to testify.
How many times will I have to appear in court?
No one can tell in advance how many times or how long you will have to be in court. The process of trying a case takes time. The number of times you may be called to appear in court and the delays you may encounter are the result of many factors, including pre-trial motions or other scheduled events with your case, or congestion on the judge’s court calendar.
The stages involved in processing a criminal case are summarized on our The Legal System page. In general, your first and only appearance for misdemeanor offenses will be for the actual trial. In a felony case, the first time you appear as a witness may be for the preliminary examination. On rare occasions, pre-trial motions by the defense attorney or by the prosecuting attorney may require additional hearings before the trial begins, which may require witness testimony.
What if my employer won’t let me come to court?
If you are lawfully subpoenaed to court, an employer cannot prevent court attendance. When appropriate, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will contact your employer to discuss the importance of your role as a witness. We can also provide you with a note, on our letterhead, confirming the days or hours when you were in court
What if I can’t attend on the date stated in the subpoena?
If you have a date conflict, you should contact your Victim Advocate or Assigned Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney immediately to discuss your conflict. In some cases, the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney handling the case can put you “on call” (so that you can go to work or school on the day you are subpoenaed, and you will be called at a pre-arranged phone number an hour or so before you are needed in court.
I was subpoenaed by the defendant, not the prosecutor. Does this change anything?
A subpoena issued by any party is legally binding and until you are excused by the court, you are required to attend accordingly.
What if I need an interpreter?
Foreign language interpreters and interpreters for the hearing or speech impaired are available. If you are in need of interpreting services while in attendance at court, contact the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney or your Victim Advocate as soon as possible.