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  #1  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:13 AM
control-z control-z is online now
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Are court witnesses allowed to expand on a "yes" or "no" answer?

I've seen instances (fictionalized probably but I assume it happens in real life too) where witnesses were on the stand being examined and asked a question and asked to answer "yes" or "no." The answer to the question did have a yes or no answer, but with a larger story that explained why it was yes or no. When the witness tried to explain they were told "Just answer yes or no." For example, the question might be "Did you hit the defendant with a shovel?" the answer might be "Yes, but it was because I tripped over a hose and fell."

My question is when someone is on the stand, are they allowed to say what they want, more than yes or no to that particular question, if the information is relevant?
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  #2  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:15 AM
md2000 md2000 is offline
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I've always wondered about this to. Can you turn to the judge and say, "your honour, I was sworn to tell the whole truth and yes or no is not the whole truth."?
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  #3  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:17 AM
Oakminster Oakminster is online now
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In my state, the witness must answer yes or no, but is then allowed to explain the answer.
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  #4  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:19 AM
Ruby Slippers Ruby Slippers is offline
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IANAL, but I assume two opposing lawyers get a shot at this witness. One may not want an expanded answer, but I bet the other one will.
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  #5  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:22 AM
Procrustus Procrustus is offline
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Really depends on the flow of the testimony. If the witness is being evasive and swerving all over the place, the judge might ask him/her to get to the point and simply answer yes or no. With a good witness who a lawyer is trying to box in a corner, the judge will usually allow an explanation. Of course, the other lawyer can always get up on re-direct and ask "you seemed uncomfortable with simply answering yes or no to Mr. Butthead's question, why was that? Please give the jury a better understanding of your testimony on that point."
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  #6  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:22 AM
MichaelEmouse MichaelEmouse is online now
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A lawyer who tried to restrict a witness by saying "answer "yes" or "no"!" would make an objection very easy to sustain, unless it were bleedingly obvious that the witness was trying to avoid answering. Even then, judges are not fond of restricting a witness' testimony.

If it were obvious that the witness was not trying to bring important nuances but rather avoid answering the question, the judge of fact would likely take that into consideration when deciding how much credence to give that witness' testimony.

Fictionalized depictions of legal matters are often unreliable because fiction needs drama and legal matters, even if important, are often very sterile.
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  #7  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:44 AM
MikeS MikeS is offline
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There's also the related notion of a hostile witness: normally a lawyer can't ask leading yes-or-no questions during direct examination, but if it becomes evident that the witness is not cooperating, the lawyer can ask permission to treat their witness as "hostile". If permission is granted, leading yes-or-no questions are allowable.
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  #8  
Old 05-03-2012, 01:43 PM
Omar Little Omar Little is offline
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If the witness is being cross-examined by the opposing counsel and limits the response to a "yes or no". Once the cross-examination is complete. A good competent counsel for the opposing side can re-direct and ask the witness to expound upon their answer. This is why most litigators won't limit the witness to just a yes or no response, as the other side can get the testimony in if they so desire.

Most witnesses are advised by the counsel for which they represent to just answer the questions and not expound with further clarification. If the attorney's want or feel the testimony is pertinent they will ask you to expound.
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  #9  
Old 05-03-2012, 02:04 PM
AK84 AK84 is offline
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A good cross examiner will ensure that the answers that can be given are limited to what he wants and he should know what the answer will be before hand and thus ensure that the witnesses testimony is impeached

"You were told of it during dinner"

Yes

"You had never had any information before"

Yes

"You were not involved in at all before"

Well, no, I was not

"You never had any opputunity to discuss it further before the breach occurred"

No


On the other hand, a good lawyer in examination in chief (direct examination for the US) wiill protect the witness from what will occur in cross, and the best way to do it is to close of any possible fruitful avenues.

"When did you learn about the deal"

At dinner with the client

"What was your reaction?"

It confirmed long held suspicions that I had

"Why did you have these suspicions"

Well, all the information that I had up this point indicated that they could take that course.

"Why did that information mean that to you"

They were not buying more stock, indicated that they were looking to extricate themselves.

Far better to do the above, then to try to fix it in rexamination.

Last edited by AK84; 05-03-2012 at 02:06 PM..
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  #10  
Old 05-03-2012, 06:07 PM
njtt njtt is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AK84 View Post
A good cross examiner will ensure that the answers that can be given are limited to what he wants and he should know what the answer will be before hand and thus ensure that the witnesses testimony is impeached

...

"You had never had any information before"

Yes

"You were not involved in at all before"

Well, no, I was not

"You never had any opputunity to discuss it further before the breach occurred"

No

...
If you are constrained to give a simple yes or no answer to those "questions", you may well be being forced to lie. The way they are phrased, "yes" and "no" both amount to agreeing with the questioner's suggestion. I certainly hope "good" lawyers do not do this (or are not allowed to get away with it, if they try).

Last edited by njtt; 05-03-2012 at 06:11 PM..
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  #11  
Old 05-03-2012, 06:34 PM
Bytegeist Bytegeist is offline
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Originally Posted by njtt View Post
If you are constrained to give a simple yes or no answer to those "questions", you may well be being forced to lie.
Like when you get, "Will your answer to this question be No?"
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  #12  
Old 05-03-2012, 06:41 PM
njtt njtt is offline
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Originally Posted by Bytegeist View Post
Like when you get, "Will your answer to this question be No?"
Um, no, not really.

Last edited by njtt; 05-03-2012 at 06:42 PM..
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  #13  
Old 05-03-2012, 06:48 PM
Gorsnak Gorsnak is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by njtt View Post
Um, no, not really.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liar_paradox
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  #14  
Old 05-03-2012, 07:07 PM
Candyman74 Candyman74 is offline
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Generally speaking, the obligation is to answer the question and tell the truth. The lawyer has no power to force the exact format of your answer, but is well practiced in getting witnesses to comply.

A direction from the judge is another matter.
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  #15  
Old 05-03-2012, 07:55 PM
The Second Stone The Second Stone is online now
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Originally Posted by Oakminster View Post
In my state, the witness must answer yes or no, but is then allowed to explain the answer.
This is the law in California. There are lawyers who try to cut off explanations and judges who let them. The witness should complain of being interrupted, and so should opposing counsel.

Last edited by The Second Stone; 05-03-2012 at 07:55 PM..
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  #16  
Old 05-03-2012, 11:46 PM
AK84 AK84 is offline
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Originally Posted by njtt View Post
If you are constrained to give a simple yes or no answer to those "questions", you may well be being forced to lie. The way they are phrased, "yes" and "no" both amount to agreeing with the questioner's suggestion. I certainly hope "good" lawyers do not do this (or are not allowed to get away with it, if they try).
Beng compelled to agree with the askers questions, well its the basis of cross examination. So you hope in vain. A judge might interfere if the witness is being intimidated too much. Also remember that cross is firstly inherently hostile and secondly follows examination in chief, where the Witness would have had the opportunity to put and elaborate his/her own case.
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  #17  
Old 05-04-2012, 07:46 AM
BubbaDog BubbaDog is offline
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In the hearings in which I've been involved, the lawyer for my side would retrace all points that were fuzzy during "redirect".

So he would ask me a question like this -

"Mr BD, you stated in court that you hit the man with the shovel. Why did you hit him with the shovel."

Me: "Because I was holding the shovel and tripped while walking on the rocks next to him. The shovel hit him by accident."

Most lawyers are smart enough not to try to get too crafty with the "yes or no" setups as it's usually a great "aha" setup for the opposing lawyer in rebuttal.
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  #18  
Old 05-04-2012, 08:06 AM
pseudotriton ruber ruber pseudotriton ruber ruber is offline
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On TV shows, lawyers are allowed to do this:

"Well, yes, but--"

"Thank you. No further questions."

"But--"

"Asked and answered, your honor."

"Sustained. Witness is dismissed."

I wonder how common this sort of exchange really is. I often think if I were a "yes, but--" witness, they'd need a crowbar to pry those two words out of me at the beginning of my testimony. I'd start by answering "A 'yes' or 'no' answer is bound to be misleading. May I explain why 'yes' and 'no' are both inappropriate answers?" and if the judge finally directed me to answer Yes or No, I'd say "This is contrary to my oath to tell the whole truth but with that noted: Yes."
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  #19  
Old 05-04-2012, 08:06 AM
DrDeth DrDeth is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by The Second Stone View Post
This is the law in California. There are lawyers who try to cut off explanations and judges who let them. The witness should complain of being interrupted, and so should opposing counsel.
Right, there's no "answer 'yes or no' only" out here, unless the Judge does so.
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  #20  
Old 05-04-2012, 10:20 AM
AK84 AK84 is offline
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Originally Posted by pseudotriton ruber ruber View Post
On TV shows, lawyers are allowed to do this:

"Well, yes, but--"

"Thank you. No further questions."

"But--"

"Asked and answered, your honor."

"Sustained. Witness is dismissed."

I wonder how common this sort of exchange really is. I often think if I were a "yes, but--" witness, they'd need a crowbar to pry those two words out of me at the beginning of my testimony. I'd start by answering "A 'yes' or 'no' answer is bound to be misleading. May I explain why 'yes' and 'no' are both inappropriate answers?" and if the judge finally directed me to answer Yes or No, I'd say "This is contrary to my oath to tell the whole truth but with that noted: Yes."
If a lawyer tries the above exchange, the Judge will almost certainly allow the witness to complete what he wanted to say.

What most in this thread seem to not realise is that the control of a witness is the key to witness handling skills of any advocate. In cross an advocate knows what the answer is going to be before he asks a question. He in cross if he wants to put a yes or no question, is not going to issue a question where a "yes but" is possible. Its going to be a closed and leading question with only one realistic answer.

So he is not going to ask (to someone who is self taught in a field)

You have no official qualification
Because the witness can easily say; "no but I have worked ten years under qualified masters or in the industry".

He is going to ask

You have not been certified by the <appropriate authority> That does not lead itself as well to a "yes but".

Last edited by AK84; 05-04-2012 at 10:21 AM..
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  #21  
Old 05-04-2012, 11:16 AM
njtt njtt is offline
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Originally Posted by Gorsnak View Post
Yes, I am well aware of that, and it is not what I was talking about.

Quote:
Originally Posted by AK84 View Post
Beng compelled to agree with the askers questions, well its the basis of cross examination. So you hope in vain. A judge might interfere if the witness is being intimidated too much. Also remember that cross is firstly inherently hostile and secondly follows examination in chief, where the Witness would have had the opportunity to put and elaborate his/her own case.
So you are saying that solicitation of perjury on cross-examination is ok?

It is not a matter of "hostile." Your examples (if limited to yes/no answers) are trick questions that only allow for one answer, which may well be a lie. If that is allowed in US courts, then something is badly wrong with the system.
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  #22  
Old 05-04-2012, 11:22 AM
Acsenray Acsenray is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AK84 View Post
So he is not going to ask (to someone who is self taught in a field)

You have no official qualification
Because the witness can easily say; "no but I have worked ten years under qualified masters or in the industry".

He is going to ask

You have not been certified by the <appropriate authority> That does not lead itself as well to a "yes but".
To me, "yes, but" applies equally to both questions.
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  #23  
Old 05-04-2012, 12:07 PM
AK84 AK84 is offline
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Originally Posted by njtt View Post
So you are saying that solicitation of perjury on cross-examination is ok?

It is not a matter of "hostile." Your examples (if limited to yes/no answers) are trick questions that only allow for one answer, which may well be a lie. If that is allowed in US courts, then something is badly wrong with the system.
A lawyer is not permitted to elicit testimony which he knows or has reasonable cause to believe is untrue, so your assertion and fears have little basis in fact. Also you seem to be unaware of the exact purpose of cross examination; it is to attack a witnesses credibility not (usually) his truthfulness. That is done through the asking of a series of short pointed, closed and leading questions. Most of the time, whether or not he is lying is not the issue, its whether the trier of fact would find him more credible and believable than your own witnesses. An honest witness can be and often is not a credible one. The purpose moreover, is not to make a witness state that black was white when his position is that is was black, its purpose is to make the trier of fact doubt whether the perception and or deduction of the witness as to blackness was infact correct or not.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ascenray
To me, "yes, but" applies equally to both questions.
No. The point of the question here is to cast doubt on the witnesses abilities, the first gives him a comeback the second less so and the effect of the comeback on whoever the trier of fact is shall be reduced.

Last edited by AK84; 05-04-2012 at 12:08 PM..
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