Thank You For Not Coaching Your Witness

Jamison KoehlerProfessional Responsibility/Ethics, Trial Advocacy

We should be able to take it for granted that the other side will not coach its witnesses.  But this is not an ideal world.  A couple of years ago, for example, police officers in D.C. accused prosecutors from the Office of the Attorney General with having asked them to lie on the stand in a DUI case.  (The officers later sued the city for whistleblower retaliation.)

That’s why I don’t take anything for granted.  That’s why I thanked the prosecutor after a recent case in which his officer had clearly not been coached.  “The officer tells me what happened,” the prosecutor told me.  “Then I put him on the stand.”  But he did not seem surprised that I brought this up.

I myself have learned from bitter experience not to over-prepare my own witnesses. This is what the rules on professional ethics dictate.  It is also self-interest.

The client will usually tell me his version of events a couple of times during the early stages of the case.  If it becomes apparent later that the client may have to testify, I have him run through the story one last time in narrative form.  Assuming I am confident there will no surprises, I try to avoid interrupting him at this point to seek clarification.   And I try to do it only once.

A big part of this is that I don’t want to signal to the client what I think is important. I made the mistake early on of tipping my hand to a fairly unsophisticated client:  I let him know that I particularly liked one portion of his narrative.  These were then virtually the first words out of his mouth. Another time a client realized I liked the number ten in relation to some material fact.  This number then became twenty at trial.

I understood this:  Both clients were nervous.  The stakes were high.  And they wanted to do a good job.  But the results in both cases were disastrous.

The best testimony – the most credible testimony – is natural and unrehearsed.  People don’t speak in perfect sentences.  They don’t tell smooth narratives that cover all the right bases.  Sometimes people need to be interrupted and re-directed.

Tell the truth, I tell clients, just like you told me now.  Tell the truth even if you think it might hurt our case.  Believe me, I wouldn’t put you on the stand if I was worried about that.  And just answer the question I have asked you.  Let me worry about whether or not we have covered everything we need to get in.  I will keep asking you questions until we do.