Criminal trials are complex processes, and they can look a lot different than what you see on television. When most people watch the average show about criminal law, they see a contrived version of the trial. They see lawyers talking often, giving long speeches about morality and sometimes ignoring witnesses altogether. In the real world, when people go to trial, it is how the lawyers handle the witnesses that can determine the outcome of the case. An important tool in that process is the cross examination process. For people who have been accused of crimes and are looking to handle the situation in the best way possible, getting the help of a lawyer who can handle himself during cross-examination is key.
What is cross examination?
Trials proceed through the questioning of witnesses. Even when there is a piece of physical evidence that needs to be introduced into the trial, it must be introduced through a witness on the witness stand. With this in mind, there are two ways that witnesses can be questioned. The direct examination is what happens when a lawyer is questioning a person he or she has called to the stand. For instance, if a prosecutor is trying to prove a murder case and he calls to the stand the eye witness, he would engage in a direct examination. A cross examination takes place when a lawyer is questioning a witness he or she did not call to the stand.
What makes cross examination different from direct examination?
One of the key differences between direct examination and cross examination is the type of questions allowed. In a direct examination, the lawyer asking the questions is not allowed to lead the witness. The witness must come up with her own answers without the lawyer providing a road map to get to those answers. In cross examination, those rules do not apply.
Even though the rules do not apply, most lawyers want to keep the answers on cross examination short and sweet. Many lawyers will ask questions that require only a one-word answer from the witness. If the witness is bound to say something harmful to the defense’s case, for instance, it is best to ensure that the witness is only answering a carefully selected batch of questions that will help the defendant. Good lawyers utilize this skill to keep witnesses in line and ensure that cross examination can only help their clients.
Why is cross examination so important?
Cross examination has many critical purposes. For one, it gives the lawyer the opportunity to question the credibility of the witness. If a witness for the prosecution has given testimony that is highly damaging, it is the job of the lawyer to undermine the credibility that jurors might give to that witness. This can be done in many different ways, including through something called impeachment of the witness. Introducing statements the witness has made that contradict the trial testimony is a good way to get jurors questioning whether they should trust the witness’s judgment.
In addition to that, cross-examination may break down the witness. When a witness is being questioned under direct examination, they are often answering questions they have been coached to answer. There is little pressure in this scenario. Good defense lawyers like to go on the attack during cross examination, doing their absolute best to make the witness look less settled on the stand. Skilled lawyers can make the process uncomfortable for the witness in hopes that the witness will say something that helps the case of the defendant.
Good criminal defense lawyers are always looking for ways to help their clients. Trials can feel like a war when the parties are going back and forth and when many witnesses are introduced. People who have been charged with crimes should put in due diligence to ensure they get the best possible criminal defense lawyer. A good lawyer will view cross examination as the opportunity to get ahead in the case. They will view it as a chance to stand up for their client while the state is presenting damning evidence. People in search of criminal defense lawyers would be wise to select professionals who know what they are doing when the chance for cross examination comes about.
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