Can trial witnesses say this to a bullying crossexamining attorney

This is probably a dumb question–I’ve never been in a trial before, so I am going off of what I’ve seen on TV (groans from you lawyers) in movies (more groans) and Court TV (Rolleyes).

On TV, at least, attorneys seem to be good at asking very specific questions and cutting witnesses off so that the answers they give (and that go on record) are as beneficial to their case as possible. For example, counsel might ask “Did you leave your car unattended? Answer YES or NO” and not allow the witness to say “Yes, but only for a minute and my niece stayed in the car.”

I know that counsel on the other side could re-examine to try to get the whole story on record, but what I am wondering is this:

Why can’t a witness insist that the court (the judge) allows him or her to answer fully, in the manner they desire? Couldn’t the witness argue that to be denied that right forces them to break their vow of telling the “WHOLE truth?” Couldn’t he argue that by not being allowed to answer fully, the counselor is in effect forcing him to commit perjury, making his testimony incomplete and misleading?

I can see where this would allow annoying loquacious ramblers like myself waste court time answering questions with too much detail. But I was just wondering why a witness doesn’t have that right or can’t make that argument.

I’m not a lawyer, but I was on trial once.

When it came time for me to take the stand, my attorney would ask me a question and pretty much let me go as long as I wanted. My answers were pretty short, however, because I feared putting my foot in my mouth and getting myself into more trouble than I was already in. Since my attorney and I had already gone over what he was going to ask me, and what I should kind of say, I knew what he was after and didn’t say much more than the at hand details.

When it came time for the prosecutor to grill me, on the other hand, he tried the same 'cut ‘em off’ technique that you talked about and that I’ve seen on TV too. What was interesting to me then, and kind of refreshing to see in a way too, was that the judge would interrupt the prosecutor who was interrupting me and say, ‘Let the man finish’.

I never expected that. I assumed all attorneys did the 'cut ‘em off technique’, and the ‘answer only yes or no’ stuff, and that they did it as means to get a person to say something they really didn’t, or don’t, want to say. But in my case, the judge would continually say to the prosecutor ‘Let him finish’ and gave me the impression that I could go on as long as I wanted.

Interestingly enough, that in itself could have resulted in getting myself into more trouble, because I was essentially digging myself into a whole by explaining each and every question in detail. So in a way, letting me go in could have easily worked in the prosecutors favor.

But still, I was struck that the judge shot down the prosecutor and pretty much gave me free reign, especially since I’d seen the same kind of thing that you had seen too.

It’s important to note, however, that this wasn’t before a jury, and questions that he told the prosecutor to let me elaborate or finish my trane of thought were questions that couldn’t be answered simply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ either, they all kind of had a background in and of themselves.

Don’t know if this answers anything, but it surprised me at the time, and actually made me think the system wasn’t as cruel as I had thought it was.

I am an Australian lawyer so YMMV.

But here, if a witness (in response to your theoretical question) said “Yes, but…” and was then cut off by the cross examiner, the judge and/or opposing counsel would step in and insist that the witness be allowed to give their whole answer. At least up to the point where the judge became convinced that the witness was in fact being an “annoying loquacious rambler” and/or rambling etc to avoid answering the question.

As to your specific question, the witness is not really generally in a position to insist anything. But the transcript will show what was going on, and there is no way that anyone is going to be prosecuted for perjury when they give a literally correct answer (“Yes”) when the question has been artificially restricted in the way you suggest, or when they have been interrupted by x-examining counsel. So they have no real cause for concern.

And tactically, in my experience, most judges are pretty on the ball when it comes to determining what the witness is trying to say. By cutting the witness off, and making it clear that you are trying to prevent the witness from answering fully, you just end up highlighting what it is that you are trying to hide.

And yes, I was on trial for bad grammer and spelling. I lost.

What sentence did you get?

I totally got off.

All I had to do was attend a mensa convention. You’d think it’d be stuffy, but it really wasn’t. I got all the cheese and crackers I could eat, and they even shipped me in my own supply of Bud (You now, the king of Beers)?.

Talk about a breese.

And all I had to do was talk to a couple of parents kids.


In my experience, whether a judge will cut off a witness who elaborates in cross-examination is a judge-by-judge issue. There is no rule which specifically limits a witness to answering “yes” or “no” to a leading question, however, there is a general requirement that any answer be responsive to the question asked. If the question calls for a yes or no answer, then anything beyond the the yes or no is non-responsive.

There is a purpose to allowing leading questions in cross-examination. The attorney who calls a witness usually has had the opportunity to meet with the witness and go through the witnesses testimony a head of time. That attorney knows what the witness will say, and can tailor his or her questions to elicit relevant testimony. The opposing counsel does not have that advantage, usually only having met the opposing witness during an adversarial deposition, if at all. Thus opposing counsel is usually given the ability to tightly control the testimony that he or she draws from the witness. There is nothing more damaging than asking a question that harms your client, and the allowance of leading questions in cross examination allows an opposing attorney to draw out evidence from an adverse witness with little risk that that witness will torch his or her case.

“The quick brown fox jumped over a lazy dog.”

That was brilliant.

I had a hearing today where both I and the complainant represented ourselves. I couldn’t believe the latitude he gave both of us during the cross-examinations as it was my first time as a participant in anything of that nature. At no time did he tell either of us to get to the point in either our questioning or our answers. Previously, I’d thought that time constraints meant for a 'get 'em in, get ‘em out’, assembly line approach in Magistrates courts.

However, when the magistrate finally came to a decision (which the other guy didn’t like), he was pretty forthright in cutting him off and citing the inconsistencies in his arguments that I’d previously thought had just been accepted. His Worship was most definitely on the ball today at least.

All in all, today was one of the best days I’ve had in the last two years.:smiley:

Congratulations Mersavets you have received satisfaction from the Australian court system. Don’t expect it to occur regularly, indeed don’t expect it to necessarily occur ever again.

Yours cynically and with new improved split infinitives…

Congratulations Mersavets you have received satisfaction from the Australian court system. Don’t expect it to occur regularly, indeed don’t expect it to necessarily occur ever again.

Yours cynically and with new improved split infinitives…

As usual I can’t add much to these answer in your pursuit for knowledge. But I can tell a joke!

So farmer Smith was up on the stand testifying before the jury on his medical problems resulting from an accident. The defense lawyer for the insurance company gets up and says, “now Mr. Smith, is it true that you talked to a policeman right after the accident?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“And what did you say to the policeman?”
“Well, I told him I was fine but --”
“Thank you.”
“No, see, I told him I was fine but --”
“Sir, you’ve answered the question.”
Reluctantly, farmer Smith closed his mouth. The defense lawyer smugly announces “so you’re trying to claim injuries now, but you were fine after the accident. Interesting. No further questions.” and sits down.
Farmer Smith’s lawyer then gets up and says “I noticed you had something else to say, Mr. Smith. Would you please tell the court what it is?”
Farmer Smith looks over at the defense lawyer to see if he’s going to be interupted and then blurts out really quickly "well you see I was just driving down the road minding my own business when I came up over this hill and a cow was in the middle of the road and I swerved and the cow mooed and I hit the cow and my truck went rolling and the cow went flying and I’m lying there outside the car when the policeman shows up and looks at the cow and pulls out his gun and shoots the cow right in the head and then turns to me and says “Are you all right?” and I said “yeah! I’m fine!”

I almost had it done to me as an expert witness in a civil trial.

Though the opposing attorney never forced me into a one word answer by yelling "Just say ‘Yes or no!’ " I wasn’t allowed to say what I wanted to say.

So I talked to the attorney on my side during a break, and after the break, he led me into questioning that allowed me to say what I was going to say.

So I think all that stuff on TV and movies is just for dramatics. There’s always redirects.

I’ve sometimes thought about what would happen if some bullying attorney did that to me. I think I’d just ignore him and say “There’s no yes or no answer!”, maybe even look at the jury when I say it. The judge can’t put you into contempt by doing that. After all the judge is supposed to be impartial and if he/she sees that you’r being bullied he/she may stop it. And even afterwards, the other attorney can put you on the stand and say. “There’s no yes or no answer to that question, isn’t that right?”

Bad example and “yes” is the wrong answer. If your niece was in the car it wasn’t “unattended” was it?

I’m not a lawyer but my impression is that judges try to allow the opposing attorneys to develop their case and attack the opposing case the way they want to, not in accordance with the way the witness wants.

Incidently, Aurthur Train, writer of the “Mr. Tutt” law stories that are used as illustrative and explanatory background (I think the legal term is res gestae) in some law schools, agrees with you.

PS “attorneys” The rule for forming the plural of a word ending in “y” is change the “y” to “i” and add “es.” Sure it is.

Thanks for the congrats, I’ll put them aside with all the other well wishes I’ve received today and recently.:smiley:

But how about a little context for your cynicism? Are you a practising lawyer? Corporate, criminal… ? Why do you work in a field you have so little regard for?

If you have specific remedies for the ailments, you might consider starting a thread outlining them. I’d definitely have time for the views of someone who is disgruntled but informed. It seems to me that the least ‘gruntled’, with regards to the judiciary at the moment, are the tabloid media who are rarely noted for their well informed views and opnions.

I’ve been a witness to a crime and testified at the criminal trial. The defense attorney tried to cut me off before giving a complete answer, but I simply kept talking over him until I had finished what I had to say. He asked the judge to instruct me not talk over him, but the judge advised him to simply let me finish.

He complained a second time that I was answering questions before he had even finished asking and was giving more information than an answer required. The judge asked me to let the attorney finish his questions, but also allowed me to fill in any blanks with as much information as I had to offer. Needless to say, the attorney was very flustered, and his client went to jail.

YMMV, but here in Southeast Texas the cross-examining attorney is usually allowed to “control”/“cut off” the witnesses’ answers to a good extent.

Bear in mind that the first lawyer will then have a chance to take the witness on “re-direct”. If the cross-examining lawyer cut him off unfairly, it’s very easy to fix – “Mr. X, the defense lawyer apparently didn’t want you to tell the jury what it was that his client said after the officer showed up – can you tell the jury what the Defendant said?”. Ouch.

In short, you cut a witness off at your own risk.

PS Another favorite trick when I am the cross-examiner is to let the witness ramble on a few times (the jury will obviously know that the witness is doing so), ask them a question, endure the answer, and then ask: “Sir, what was my last question?” When they confess that they have no idea, it usually gets a chuckle or two from the jury box.

Juries figure out pretty quickly who is bulls—ting them, be it lawyer or witness.
JohnW77707, Esq.
Board-Certified, Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Personal Injury Trial Law

I was a witness once who was badgered by the “answer YES or NO, please” defence attorney. I enraged him by continuing to say the following things:

“That depends.”
“The question is not answerable by ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

At one point, the attorney said “Sure it is - every question can be answered by ‘yes’ or ‘no’.”, and in a rare flash of inspiration, I said “What did you have for breakfast this morning?”

The prosecutor laughed, and people in the court audience did. The judge did not laugh, and asked me to “answer the question and stop fooling around.” :eek: However, I asked the judge to give me a minute, and I explained to him why there was no way to answer the question “Yes” or “No” because the facts were not available. He seemed to understand, and then told the defence attorney how the question should be rephrased ( :eek: - that sounds unorthodox to me, but I don’t know) but the defence attorney very contemptuously turned his back on me and said “No further questions.” I guess the question wasn’t that important when it was phrased in the proper way…