Controlling The Runaway Witness

controlling the runaway witnessControlling the runaway witness during cross examination is one of those challenges that we as trial lawyers have to deal with on a daily basis. No matter how tight and pointed the question is, the runaway witness takes it upon himself or herself to lead off in a tangent that seems to go on forever. Regardless of what the witness may want to do, however, we can always keep control of the witness. In most courtrooms you won’t get away with outright cutting the witness off by speaking over the witness. But there are some techniques you can use to minimize the witness’ ramblings that you can get away with. Here are a couple.

The Traffic Cop Maneuver

This is exactly as it sounds. If the witness starts going on a long, unrelated tangent, you raise your hand with your open palm directed at the witness.  This is the same motion that a traffic cop does to stop traffic. This technique will work most of the time with lay witnesses. While this technique can be very effective, it also comes across a bit rude so make sure not to overuse it.

The Timed Interruption

This technique requires a bit more finesse than the traffic cop maneuver. With that said, it also is a lot less rude so it is worth your time to learn. To execute this technique successfully the advocate has to learn the timing in the witness’ speech. By learning the witness’ timing you can interrupt the witness mid tangent without forcefully cutting the witness off. This is done by starting to speak once the witness has taken a natural pause in his or her speaking.

Getting The Judge Involved

This one is my least favorite technique for controlling the runaway witness. While I don’t use it myself I have seen it done and heard many lawyers recommend it so I’ll put it in here. This very simple technique is as its name suggests–a call for help to the trial judge. You simply ask the judge to instruct the witness to answer the question directly. While this is the easiest technique to execute I dislike it because it shows the jury that you are not in control and you need help in conducting your trial.


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