What the Heck are Your Witnesses Saying?!?

When I think of horses, I typically think of Kentucky and the Kentucky Derby. But did you know that the official “Horse Capital of the World” isn’t located in Kentucky? Surprisingly, it’s located just an hour or two north of where I live, in Marion County, Florida. Marion County is filled with tall oaks, rolling hills, and LOTS of horses. In fact, according to census figures, there are more horses in this county than any other county in America.

Earlier this week I was teaching a trial advocacy program in the middle of horse country, and that’s where I met Buddy.

Buddy the ClydesdaleBuddy is a horse. More specifically, he’s a Clydesdale, and he lives on a large paddock behind the Ocala Hilton hotel where I was staying. I went outside to pet him and was amazed at how big he was. I’ve been around horses before (remind me to tell you about the cattle drive in Montana that I did with my brother a few years ago), but Clydesdale horses always amaze me. They’re magnificent animals, and they’re absolutely HUGE.

I was curious how big he was, so I went inside the hotel to ask. The lady at the front desk told me, “Oh, he’s pretty big — about 16 hands or so.” I smiled and told her “thank you,” but there was one slight problem: I had absolutely no idea what she meant. I wanted to say, “16 hands?!? What the heck are you talking about?” Instead, I decided I didn’t want to look dumb, so I simply said, “Thank you,” and left the building.

As you’d probably expect, people who work with horses have their own vocabulary. In horsing communities, a “hand” is the accepted unit of measurement for determining the size of a horse. The story behind it is that a king wanted to measure his favorite horse, but since he didn’t have a measuring device, he used the only thing he knew would be consistent: the palm of his hand. Since then, the “hand” has become the accepted unit of measurement for equines. To determine the horse’s height, you measure from the ground to the top of the withers (the last hair of the mane on most equines), with “HH” after the numbers standing for the number of “Hands High.”

I learned an important lesson from that exchange.

Regardless of whether your witnesses are horsemen, doctors, police officers, etc., they’re going to have their own language. As the trial lawyer, you’ll invest the effort to learn their language so you can communicate with your witness. Before long, you’ll become so fluent that you won’t even notice when a few foreign terms casually creep into their testimony.

Here’s the problem: Your jurors don’t speak that foreign language, and they’re not going to understand what’s being said. Like me, they’ll probably be afraid of looking dumb, so they won’t speak up and say, “Excuse me, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Instead, they’ll quietly sit in the jury box, pretending to understand, and completely miss the most important evidence in your case.

When these foreign terms sneak into a witness’s testimony, you need to ask the witness, “Could you please tell us what [FOREIGN TERM] means?” Your job is to ensure that your jurors understand the courtroom testimony. Train yourself to listen with a layman’s ear, and these foreign terms will leap out at you. Translate them for your jurors, and you’ll never again have to worry about them missing an important piece of evidence because they didn’t speak the witness’s language.

[By the way, a “hand” is 4 inches high, so Buddy was about 64 inches /162.5 cm tall at the shoulders. That’s BIG!]

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