Witnesses called to testify in a criminal trial are often average people who were just going about their business when they happened to be in the right place at the right time to witness a crime. Or they may be friends or acquaintances of a defendant who are asked to testify as character witnesses. Or a witness may be the victim of the crime in question. In any case, people who are asked to testify as a witness in a criminal trial — or who are compelled to do so by subpoena —generally never asked to be put in that situation, and are often intimidated and uncertain about what to expect.
It doesn’t help that speaking in front of a room full of people is often cited as the top human fear. So here are some points to keep in mind if you are asked to testify:
- You are not on trial. There is no need to fear that you will say or do something wrong. Simply listen to and follow instructions, behave respectfully, and answer questions honestly and to the best of your ability.
- The prosecuting or defense attorney who called you to testify, or a representative from his or her office, should be able to answer any questions you have before the trial.
- When you are questioned on the stand, answer briefly, and do not volunteer more information than is necessary to answer the question.
- If you do not understand a question, say so. If you do not know the answer to a question, simply say you do not know or do not remember. Do not try to come up with an answer if you do not have one.
- If an attorney voices an objection, stop speaking and wait for the judge to respond.
- When you are called to the stand, you will swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Do that. If you are caught lying to the court, you can be charged with perjury. Then you will be on trial.