Hang ’em with their own words!

We were halfway through the direct examination of my star witness when I asked, “What did you hear Mr. Thomas say?

Even if you got a “D-” in your evidence class, when you saw that question you instinctively thought to yourself, “Objection! Hearsay!” My question called for the most obvious objection in the world, right? That’s why it’ll probably surprise you that my opponent didn’t jump up from his seat to yell “Objection!” In fact, he didn’t say a word. He just sat there and continued taking notes.

Before you ask, no, he hasn’t been disbarred, and no, he’s not an idiot. The reason he didn’t object was because he couldn’t. Mr. Thomas was my opponent’s client, so the statement was an exception to the hearsay rule: Statements of party opponents (or, as it’s more commonly called, “admissions” or “statements against interest.”)

Admissions, especially when they’re caught on tape, are usually the most damaging evidence your jurors will hear. If you’re lucky enough to have a taped admission from your opponent, there are a number of wonderful things you can do with that evidence. For example, let’s say that you’ve got a 30 minute recording of a statement your opponent gave to the police about the crash. How many different ways could you use that recording? The first and most obvious choice would be to play the entire statement for the jury during your case-in-chief. You’d simply call the police officer to the stand, ask him to authenticate the recording, and then hit “PLAY.” Nothing to it, right?

The next way to use the recording is during cross-examination. Normally, when cross-examining witnesses about prior inconsistent statements, you confront them with the prior statement by reading it aloud from the transcript. Imagine how much more powerful your impeachment would be if the jurors heard the inconsistencies from the witness’s own mouth? It would be a lot more difficult to deny the prior statement, wouldn’t it?

Attorney: “You hoped Mr. Lumbergh would be fired, didn’t you?”

Witness: “No, of course not!”

Attorney: “Publishing the audio statement previously admitted into evidence as Defense exhibit #22…”

[Recording of witness’s voice]: “Lumbergh is a twit. If I had my way, they’d fire him, and stick that coffee mug up his you-know-what…”

Another way to use recorded statements is during closing argument, by playing individual snippets of testimony back-to-back so the jury can compare and contrast the statements:

Attorney: “The day after the murder, John Jones said that he had been home the entire evening. Remember his statement to Ofc. Smith?”

Recording of Jones’ statement: “Dude, I was home all night, I wouldn’t lie to you about that. I swear I was home the entire night. I never left the house.”

Attorney: But the very next day, when he was interviewed again, he made a very different statement, remember?

Recording of Jones’s statement: “I left the house around midnight and went to Krystal’s for some mini-burgers. I was only gone for like 45 minutes or so.”

Reel to reel recorderIn the old days, if you were lucky enough to have a recorded admission you wanted to play in court, the only easy way to do it was to bring your handy-dandy cassette recorder and play the entire statement. But the problem with playing the entire statement is that the recording rarely consists solely of statements against interest. Usually, recorded statements also include lots of self-serving hearsay and irrelevant comments. Out of the entire 30 minutes worth of “admissions,” you may want the jurors to only focus on less than a minute or two worth of testimony.

Back then, if there were any parts you needed to skip (such as suppressed statements) or any parts you wanted to highlight, you’d be stuck hitting the fast-forward button and keeping your eyes on the tape counter until you found what you were looking for. At best, it took too much time to fast-forward to the appropriate spot. At worst, your presentation became a comedy of errors as you fumbled and bumbled with the fast-forward and rewind buttons until anti-climatically reaching your impeachment material.

Luckily, nowadays, you’ve got digital technology at your fingertips which dramatically improves the ease of presenting recorded statements. And the best thing is, you don’t need to spend a fortune on professional editing equipment or fancy software to get the benefits of audio editing. With the help of a free program called Audacity (available for both Mac and PC at http://audacity.sourceforge.net/), you’ve got an easy way to edit audio statements on your laptop. All you need is a digital recording of the witness’s original statement and some basic knowledge about how to cut and paste on a computer. Once you install the program, you’ll see a screen that looks something like this:

Audacity screen capture

The program is pretty easy to use, and they’ve got full documentation on their site. Once you or your assistant learn how to use it, you can do some amazing things with audio statements. For example, here are some of the different ways you can use this program:

Redacting an audio statement to remove irrelevant sections. No longer do you have to worry about the jury hearing irrelevant, suppressed, or improper comments. Simply highlight the improper comment and click <DELETE>. Presto! The statement will be removed, and you can now save the file as a new audio recording.

Extracting admissions from longer statements. Let’s say you don’t want to replay the entire witness statement, but only want to replay a small snippet. Audacity makes it easy to extract those admissions from extended audio recordings. Here’s all you’d need to do:

  1. Go to <PROJECT> and click <IMPORT AUDIO>.
  2. Choose the audio recording you want to import.
  3. Use the selection tool to highlight the audio segment you want to export. (It’s almost the same as highlighting a paragraph in Word and clicking “Copy”)
  4. Click <FILE> and scroll down to <EXPORT SELECTION AS WAV>
  5. Choose a filename for your recording. (It’s easier to retrieve the correct statement during trial if you use descriptive titles for each file, such as “The Light was Red” or “The Light was Green”).
  6. Click “SAVE”

That’s it! Now you have a standalone .WAV file of the admission that you can play on any computer. Be creative and think of how you could use those admissions. Could you use them during settlement negotiations by burning a “Greatest Hits” CD for your opponent? (“Here are the six times during depositions where C.E.O. admits to liability.”) Or import the statements to your iTunes playlist, so you can quickly click on the correct statement to impeach witnesses during cross-examination?

Maybe you want to use the statements during closing to compare and contrast what different witnesses said about the same events: “What was their understanding of the performance metrics for promotions? Let’s hear what the CEO, Jon Smith, had to say [PLAY CLIP #1]. But the CFO, Jane Smith, said something entirely different [PLAY CLIP #2].”

Statements of party opponents, especially recorded ones, can be some of the most powerful evidence you’ll ever admit. But just as with every other exhibit or testimony that you’ll ever offer into evidence, it’s not enough to simply understand what you should show to the jury. To get the most out of your evidence, you’ll also need to master knowing when you should admit it and how you should publish it. Learn how to use an audio editing program like Audacity to extract your admissions, and you’ll be able to play them to maximum effect for your jury.

Comments policy: Be cool. Uncool things (infantile comments, racist crap, spam links, etc) will be removed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

3 thoughts on “Hang ’em with their own words!

  1. I have a question regarding an issue raised in this article that relates to an upcoming trial of mine and I wanted to get your thoughts. I have a case where the court suppressed the defendant’s confession. We appealed it and lost, so I cannot use it in my case in chief, but as you know, I can use it for impeachment purposes. My question is this: if this guy takes the stand (believe it or not, it is a realistic possibility because he keeps writing letters to the judge indicating that he will testify) should I first do the standard impeachment using the transcript and THEN play the pertinent part of the recording? My understanding is that it is necessary to have the statements in evidence in order to play the recording. What do you think?
    Also, your newsletters are extremely informative and useful. Keep up the good work!

  2. I have enjoyed every article you have written, they are so informative, well thought out yet entertaining. Please keep them coming, perhaps you should consider seminars around the country.