Direct examination, which is also known as examination-in-chief, is when a lawyer questions a witness that they called to the trial. The lawyer asks questions of the witness that will provide evidence in support of their case. If it’s a witness of the prosecution, then the prosecutor will ask questions designed to help prove the guilt of the defendant. If it’s a witness of a defense, then the defense attorney will ask questions designed to prove the defendant’s innocence or create reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.
The other type of examination is cross examination, which is when the lawyer who did not call the witness questions that witness.
There are rules in place regarding direction examination, both in regards to what the lawyer can ask the witness and what information the witness can provide. Witnesses are typically only called on to provide facts, not their opinions or to come to their own conclusions about what happened. There is an exception if the witness is an expert witness, which means they’re considered an expert in a particular field, which allows them to provide their own opinion and come to conclusions based on the evidence provided. For example, if a prosecutor calls a psychiatrist to the stand, the psychiatrist may be able to provide their opinion on the defendant’s mental state based on their own expertise in that subject.
One of the key facets of direct examination is that the lawyer can’t ask the witness leading questions, or questions phrased in a way that elicits a certain response. For example, the question “Isn’t it true that you saw the defendant at the bar on the night of February 23?” will likely result in an objection by the other lawyer, as the lawyer performing the direct examination is prompting the witness to answer affirmatively.
In stark contrast to this, leading questions are allowed and very common in cross examination, to allow the lawyer performing the cross examination to elicit testimony that the witness may be unlikely to share otherwise.
During direct examination, the opposing counsel is able to make objections. The aforementioned leading questions are one common reason for an objection, but other causes of an objection include a question that calls for a non-expert witness to provide their own opinion or questions that require the witness to answer based on hearsay, which is information they heard from somebody else. Hearsay is not allowed because the information cannot be substantiated without that other party there to confirm or deny it.
When an objection occurs, the judge can choose to either sustain it or overrule it. In the event that the objection is sustained, the lawyer who asked the question needs to either find an appropriate way to rephrase it or move on to another question. If the objection is overruled, then the question stands and the witness can answer it.
There are requirements for any witness that a lawyer calls to the stand. First and foremost, the witness must be competent to testify. Competency requires that the witness understands that they’re under oath to tell the truth, that they have memory and knowledge of the event that the lawyer will ask them about, and that they can communicate what they know to the judge and jury. The testimony of the witness must also be relevant to the case in some way.
Lawyers prepare their direct examination questions in advance, and a skilled lawyer will have a specific goal for each direct examination, particularly in regards to the evidence that the testimony demonstrates to the judge and jury. That means the lawyer will know what questions they should and shouldn’t ask to get the result that they want.
It’s common for a lawyer to go over their direct examination questions with the witness to prepare before the witness takes the stand. This will ensure that the witness is able to provide adequate answers. A lawyer will also likely prepare their witness for possible questions asked by the opposing counsel during the cross examination.