So I'm being subpoenaed.

In brief: Last summer, a friend of my roommate’s was being abused by her boyfriend. After such an attack, she would call my roommate for moral support. To her credit, my roommate soon got fed up with this and after one such occasion, called the police on her friend’s behalf. She also drove over to ensure her friend’s safety until the police arrived, and I went along as something of a bouncer, so that just in case things got ugly it wasn’t two woman vs. one (rather large) guy. My role ended up being to stand around, answer a few questions for the cops, and watch the guy get hauled away on a 3rd-degree assault charge.

Fast forward to today. The case is going to trial next week, and I just found out I’m going to be subpoenaed as a witness to testify.

So the question is this. Is there anything in general that I, as someone who’s going to be on the stand, should know in advance? Anything to be aware of? To be honest, this was 8 months ago and my memory has gotten a little bit fuzzy on the exact specifics of what I witnessed. And so I’m worried about the defense trying to trick me into a trap with my testimony.

This guy was an abusive jerk; I don’t want to inadvertently do something that would get him off the hook.

Don’t worry about it. Just testify as best you can remember, and if you don’t remember something, just tell 'em you don’t recall. Since you apparently didn’t witness much of anything, you’ll probably only be asked to answer a few questions, even assuming that they don’t work out a plea agreement before you’re called. Just be sure to bring a book, as you’ll likely be sitting around for a while until you testify.

And oh yeah, you’re certainly allowed to examine any statements you made to the police to refresh your memory. If someone asks you about such statements, you may want to ask to see the documents they’re quoting from.

Well, you could watch a whole bunch of Law and Order episodes…

Points to consider.
1/ Be polite. Do not refer to the defendant as “that jerk”.
2/ Don’t get upset/emotional/riled up. Take a deep breath if you have to.
3/ Take your time when answering questions. It is legitimate to take a moment to formulate your reply, especially for events that happened 8 or 9 months ago.
4/ Do not volunteer information or offer editorial opinions. Answer the question. Wait for the next question.
5/ If you don’t understand a question or didn’t hear something, ask for it to be repeated or clarified.
6/ Speak calmly and clearly.
7/ If you don’t remember something, say so. Don’t try to ‘fudge’ something which might or might not be accurate and which might contradict something you said earlier.

I don’t know (depends on prosecutor and/or jurisdiction) whether you can or should review your statements made to the police at the time of the arrest. You might be lucky enough to get a couple of minutes with the prosecutor before she puts you on the stand to run through your testimony.

Opening Disclaimer: While I am a lawyer, I do civil trial work and so I’m no expert on criminal cases or domestic-abuse situations. But, in general:

  1. Relax and tell the truth. Jurors sometimes lose their way on complex issues but in my experience the average jury is excellent at figuring out who is being straight up with them and who is not. Being in the former category goes a long way even if you are a little fuzzy about the unimportant details. As long as you are solid on the important issues the jury will cut you some slack if they like you.

  2. Before the day you testify, talk to the prosecutor or someone else who might be able to tell you why you are being called, i.e. what is it that they expect to prove with you? This will give you a chance to focus your own mind a little bit better. It will give the prosecuting attorney a better idea of what you can and can not help on. And you may also find out how the prosecutor thinks you are going to be attacked, if at all. Forewarned is forearmed on the witness stand.

  3. Keep the “image” issue in mind. Wear something respectful but appropriate, i.e. not “putting on airs” but not bluejeans either. As a rule, don’t wear any jewelry or watches, etc. that might make some juror jealous of your financial means. Smile. Don’t be afraid to look jurors or the lawyers in the eye. Watch what you do and what you say, even if you think no one is looking. Keep in mind that from the moment you drive up to the parking lot until you leave, a juror might be watching or listening to you.

  4. (A subset of #1) When on the witness stand, listen to the question, think for a second, answer the question. Then (particularly on cross): Stop. If you never knew the answer to the question, say “I don’t know”. If you once knew it but can’t remember it, say “I don’t remember”. Don’t be afraid to say “as best as I can recall” if that is the truth. This will keep you from unnecessarily boxing yourself in (or being boxed in) on some point that you might not have picked up on. When being crossed, look only at the defense attorney or the jury. Never look at the prosecutor; the jury is going to wonder why you are asking for help, and the prosecutor (who realizes this) isn’t going to twitch a muscle anyway. Try not to be too much of an advocate. You are there to provide the facts; the prosecutor will make the argument. Not to say you don’t want to let the jury know that you think the SOB doesn’t deserve it; but just don’t overdo it.
    If I think of anything else (or have a follow up comment on others’ posts), I’ll be back.

If you’re are a critical witness, chances are that the prosecutor will coach you to make sure that you answer your questions in a reasonable way. Chances are you are not, which means that either the prosecution figures they have a good case already, and is only bring you up as proof that the victim wasn’t just making this up, or that it wasn’t just a one time “insanity” thing. Most of the time prosecutors like to pound home (especially if the defendant is trying to get off on a technicality or pity basis, especially with a jury) the fact that this guy needs to be punished, and the more people they can parade on the stand, the more the jury is likely to toss him in jail.