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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > March 2014 > Three Quick Tips to Improve Your Court Testimony

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Three Quick Tips to Improve Your Court Testimony

Testifying in court is one of your duties as a law enforcement officer. Some officers love it; some hate it. But either way, you should know how to do it right. Here are three quick tips you can use to improve your testimony.

Tip 1: Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
The first thing to do before taking the stand is talk to your prosecutor. The prosecutor should tell you about how he or she will prove the case and how you fit into that proof. Without a doubt, you will be one of the most important witnesses at the trial, if not the most important witness. Review your case file with the prosecutor. This review can also prevent arguments in court about your case file, especially if there are missing or inconsistent documents. It will allow the prosecutor to know beforehand that there may be an issue.
You will also want to prepare on your own. That means reading over your files, looking at evidence collected, reviewing dash camera footage, or rereading witness statements. This probably seems obvious. But remember, you may have to speak mostly from memory while you are on the stand. The review will also give you a boost of confidence during cross-examination and more credibility before a judge or jury.
Tip 2: Credibility = Truthfulness
The most important thing to do while on the stand is to be truthful and credible. This means more than just being honest. It is also the way you speak to the jury or judge, your manner and presence in court, and how you treat those around you.
Think about it this way: When you stop a suspect, what have you been trained to look for to determine if the suspect is telling you the truth? If the person is speaking too fast, fidgeting, won’t make eye contact, repeats answers or seems uncertain, what is your impression? Perhaps he is not telling you the truth. Juries and judges will be doing the same thing when judging your verbal and nonverbal actions as you testify. You might be nervous because you’ve never testified before (just like a suspect might be nervous because they’ve never talked to a cop before), but the jury might take it as you having something to hide.
So, remember to maintain eye contact with the jury or the judge. It is a natural human reaction to believe that someone who won’t make eye contact with you is lying or uncertain. By making eye contact, you are establishing your confidence in your testimony. You should also speak clearly and slowly so everyone can understand you.
Matt Donahue, chief of the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutions Section, recalled a law enforcement witness who did a particularly good job of gaining credibility with the jury.
“There is one guy in particular who worked undercover. He would show up in a suit and tie that was pressed and dry cleaned. His long hair was pulled neatly back. He would sit tall on the stand and intently listen, nod his head, turn to the jurors or judge to explain what happened in response to the question. I would ask him to explain his background. He would answer with a complete background and highlight the parts of his background that helped the case or explained his testimony. He was very clear about what happened in the case and had a very professional demeanor on the stand.”
Tip 3: Everyone Must Understand
The third tip is to understand the question being asked and make sure the jury or judge understands your answer. This tip really has two parts.
First, you have to make sure the question is clear to you. Attorneys can, intentionally or unintentionally, ask confusing questions. If you don’t understand what information they’re asking for, don’t guess. Just ask them to clarify or repeat the question.
The second part of understanding the question is to understand why it is being asked. For example, understand why the defense is asking you about other suspects or why the prosecutor is asking you about the defendant’s fingerprints on the murder weapon. While it is your job to state the facts, it is the job of the attorney to use those facts to lead the jury or judge to his or her conclusion. Typically, it’s a defense attorney’s job to challenge your credibility through leading questions. So you should precisely answer the exact question asked. By contrast, a prosecutor will typically be encouraging you to tell the jury a story and to engage the jury by asking you open-ended questions. So you may want to give fuller explanation. This skill will come with more practice on the stand and by establishing a relationship with your prosecutor.
Another common mistake is confronting the attorneys, especially if they misstate a fact or your own statement. Remember that you are the holder of the information. The defense attorney was not there, nor was the prosecutor, judge, or jury. While you don’t want the defense attorney to put words in your mouth, you also can’t afford to come off as confrontational. By understanding the line of questions and the path the attorney is trying to lead your facts, you may be able to head off confrontation by keeping your answers very short. It is the job of your prosecutor to protect your credibility and help you reclaim it if something goes wrong on cross-examination.
Lastly, make sure the jury or judge understands your answer. That means you should speak in short sentences, avoid “cop jargon” and acronyms, and look at the jurors to see if they understand you. The jurors may completely miss an important detail because they do not understand law enforcement terms and in most cases cannot ask you for clarification. For instance, when a prosecutor asks you a question, don’t say, “At 1930 hours we got a BOLO from the SO for a code 29 suspect.” Instead, say, “At 7:30 p.m., we were advised by the sheriff’s office to be on the lookout for a burglary suspect.” 
Testifying in court is an important skill. For more information on building your confidence and updating your skills in testifying, the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy offers several classes, including a Testifying in Court Boot Camp course, scheduled in July, or Testifying in Court Boot Camp — Expert Witness, slated in August.
More Resources
Ashon McKenzie, Assistant Attorney General
Criminal Justice Section