Avoiding Gunfights During Cross-Examination

If you were in the police academy, one of the most important things you would learn is how to keep safe when you’re out on the street.  To stay safe, you’d want to learn how to prevent verbal confrontations from escalating into physical fights, and how to prevent physical fights from escalating into knifefights or gunfights.  As it turns out, one of the easiest ways to prevent situations from escalating to the next level is by keeping your emotional level lower than the perp’s emotional level.  (One of the other things you learn in police academy is how to use cool words like “perp.”)

For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that the scale for emotional levels runs between 0 and 10.  At level 0, you’ve got the Dalai Lama on quaaludes.  You’re calm, cool, and collected, and nothing in the world can upset you.  At the other end of the spectrum, imagine Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olberman battling for control of the country’s political mindset in a winner-takes-all steel cage death match battle royale.  At this level, you’re angry that you can’t get angrier — everything upsets you.

So let’s say that you’re a rookie cop out on the street dealing with someone at level 5.  To prevent the situation from becoming more violent, you’d want to keep your emotional level lower than theirs, preferably at least 2 levels lower.  By talking slower, being quieter, and acting calmer than the other person, you can hopefully defuse the situation by bringing the other person’s emotional level down to yours.

But what if you decided to approach the person on the same emotional level, or even worse, at a higher level?  When you’re at a more intense level, then the other person will usually rise to the challenge and increase their level, too.  For example, if the other person is calm, but you start yelling at them, they’ll ratchet up their emotional level and start yelling at you.  In return, you’ll get angrier, and start yelling louder or more profanely.  Before long, if one of you doesn’t step back, you’ll find yourself in a physical confrontation (or worse).

That’s why good police officers are able to avoid physical confrontations, because they know how to keep themselves “below” the other person’s level, and ensure that the situation is resolved peacefully.

But here’s the funny thing about police officers…

Despite all of their training about de-escalating confrontations with people out in the streets and avoiding violence by keeping their emotional level below the antagonist’s level, many of them seem to do the exact opposite when they walk into a courtroom!

Have you ever witnessed a defense attorney cross-examine a police officer?  It often sounds like this:

Defense lawyer: Good morning, officer.  I’d like to ask you some questions about your report.

Police officer: !@%$#%@ you, I want to punch you in the face.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  But if you’ve spent much time in the courtroom, chances are you’ve seen a witness fall apart during cross-examination by letting their emotions get the best of them.  It’s not just police officers — expert witnesses, corporate officers, lay witnesses — anyone can lose their cool in the courtroom.

For example, here’s the deposition of a CEO who got a little upset during his deposition:

(Ultimately, he and his lawyer were fined $29,000 for his actions during the deposition.)

Unfortunately, when your witnesses lose their temper during cross-examination, jurors lose respect for the witness.  In an instant, your witness can move from “trusted observer” to “biased jerk,” forcing the jury to discount everything he says.  (It’s not just witnesses, either.  If you lose your temper with a witness, even when the witness deserves it, you’ll sacrifice your credibility with the jury.)

So how can you prevent emotions from taking control in the courtroom?  How do you ensure that your witnesses come out on top by keeping their emotional level lower than the cross-examiner’s?

The first thing to do is to help your witnesses understand how untrustworthy they look when they lose their cool.  Videotape the witnesses during your mock cross-examinations back in the office, and make them watch the videotape.  Often, nothing needs to be said.  For many witnesses, this is the first time they’ve ever seen themselves on video, and once they see how undignified they look when they get upset, they’ll understand why you want them to monitor their emotional level.

Once they’ve seen how they look when they get upset, the next step is to help them understand what is triggering their anger.  Is it a specific factual topic?  The examiner’s tone?  An implied (or explicit) accusation?  By identifying the triggers, you’ll prepare your witness to anticipate when they’ll get upset during cross-examination, and help them avoid the confrontation.

You’ll also want to teach your witness which tactics your opponent uses to get under people’s skin and trigger their anger.  Many attorneys are one trick ponies.  Rather than using solid cross-examination skills, these lawyers will rely on raising their voice, rapid-fire questions, attacking integrity, misstating the witness’s name or rank, forcing the witness into “I don’t know” responses, staring down the witness, or other “tricks” that anger the witness.  If your witness is prepared, they’ll know to expect the lawyer’s trick so they won’t be taken by surprise and can maintain their calm exterior.

Finally, you’ll want to prepare your witnesses for what they should do when they recognize that they’re starting to lose their cool.  Remind them to slow down, take a breath, and pause before answering.  Whatever it takes, they need to keep their emotional level lower than the cross-examiner’s.  If they can’t, the jury will ignore what they say, and their testimony will be worthless.

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3 thoughts on “Avoiding Gunfights During Cross-Examination

  1. It is interesting to see how other people react in certain situations, because many of us have thought in reacting in the same way in similar situation.
    By watching other people reacting like this, make us more aware of how WE should not react and why.

    The good thin about your program, and about you mr. Elliott Wilcox is that you continue to inform and educate your students and costomers. You just don’t sell your books but your students continue getting getting more information and insights from you.

    F.B.