What REALLY Matters During Cross-Examination?

With language, it’s not just the words you use, but the order they’re placed in.  By changing the syntax, you can radically alter the meaning of a phrase.  For example, look at these two phrases:

#1: You are not as pretty as she is.

#2: She is not as pretty as you are.

Same words, different meanings.  Both phrases contain exactly the same words, but only one gets you slapped across the face.  Obviously, syntax can be powerful, so in this tip, you’ll learn how to harness its power to improve your cross-examinations.

By changing the structure of your questions, you’ll shift the jury’s focus towards the most important point that you need them to remember.  For example, let’s say you’re cross-examining a witness in a case where a child gains access to a handgun and injures another child.  One of the important facts in your case is that the witness kept a loaded handgun in the bottom drawer of his nightstand.

Depending on which fact you think matters most, you’ll want to rearrange your question to emphasize that fact.  What you’re going to do is put your most important point at the end of the statement.  Here are a two different ways to ask the same question:

1. Emphasizing that the gun was located in the bottom drawer, which would be easier for the child to access:

“In your nightstand, you kept a loaded gun in the bottom drawer?”

2. Emphasizing that he kept the gun loaded:

“Inside the bottom drawer of your nightstand, you kept a loaded gun?”

Rearranging your questions to place the most important fact at the end will give you two benefits.  First, it gives the witness less time to think.  That forces him to either respond immediately (possibly blundering his response) or squirm silently for a moment while formulating his response.  Sure, it’s only an extra moment or two, but when a witness gets hit with a tough question during cross-examination and then pauses to form his response, that time can feel like “dead air” on the radio.  A few extra moments like that during critical moments in your cross-examination can leave the jurors with the impression that this witness isn’t someone they should fully trust.

The second benefit of rearranging your question is that you’ll place greater emphasis on the important facts you want the jury to remember.  When we get to the focus of the sentence, we tend to stop listening.  Put your most important point at the end of your sentence, and then stop.

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2 thoughts on “What REALLY Matters During Cross-Examination?

  1. True. I used to teach English at college level. And this is one of the lessons I used to teach–with great emphasis. The structure of the English sentence most often works this way. New information, or information you want to emphasize, goes at, or near, the end of the sentence. The beginning of sentences is used for transitional links from what has immediately preceded it, and also to point forward to what is to come next. Moreover, this linking and introductory matter gives the reader time to work his way into the new idea. The principles of good writing, I have found, carry over into good courtroom lawyering. Example: in the courtroom the effective lawyer presents a coherent “story” or theory of his case around which he organizes his facts; similarly, all good writing presents a central thesis or idea around which the effective writer organizes his subordinate ideas and supporting examples. Etc. Old truths are good to tell.
    I’m new in the courtroom; your advice is helpful. Thanks. Mark Desser