• By Albert Depew


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General Rules for Testifying
Plea Negotiations

The first time you are called to testify can be quite scary. Remember that you are there to tell the court what you know, saw or heard. The court is trying to get as much information as possible before determining whether the defendant is guilty of the charges. Sometimes, the defense attorney may try to confuse you about what you know, saw or heard; often he or she is only testing your ability to perceive the events, the quality of your memory about them, and whether any biases or prejudices affect your recollections. Just tell the truth as best as you can recall.

General Rules for Testifying

  • Always Tell the Truth
  • Speak Clearly. A court reporter needs to take down everything you say, so it is important to speak clearly. This is also very important in a jury trial, since jurors cannot be asked to remember or believe what they did not hear.
  • Listen Carefully to the Questions. If you do not understand the question, ask to have it repeated. If it is an improper question, an attorney will object.
  • Dress Appropriately. Court is a very serious matter, and you should dress neatly. Shorts, tank tops, T-shirts or clothing with offensive language or designs are not appropriate courtroom attire. Talk to your prosecutor if you have any questions about what is appropriate for court.
  • Do Not Lose Your Temper or Use Foul Language
  • Do Not Argue With the Attorneys
  • Do Not Volunteer Information or Exaggerate. Answer only the questions that are asked.
  • Bring Any Records or Documents that you are Requested to Bring
  • Before trial, familiarize yourself about the contents of those records and make sure the prosecutor has a copy of them.
  • Testify only to the facts you observed or know. Do not speculate or give your personal opinion unless specifically asked to do so.
  • If either attorney or the judge makes an objection, STOP until the judge tells you to continue.
  • If your answer was not correctly stated, then correct it immediately.
  • Do not guess if you're not sure. If you must estimate in order to answer a question (such as times or distances), make it clear you are giving an estimate.
  • After being excused from the stand, do not discuss the case in halls, restrooms or anywhere you could be overheard. Especially, do not discuss your testimony or questions asked with others you know are witnesses in the case. After the case has ended by a determination of acquittal (not guilty) or guilt, you may discuss such matters.
  • If you are asked if you've discussed the case before court, tell the truth. There is nothing to hide. It is very commonplace that a witness in a trial will have discussed what happened with police, prosecutors, family members or friends.
  • Your behavior out of the courtroom is as important as your behavior in the courtroom.
  • Arrange for childcare during the time you come to court. Children should not be brought to court unless they are included on a subpoena.

If you think an answer to a potential question may tend to make you criminally responsible for something, you can refuse to answer on the grounds of self-incrimination. If this is a concern, you should mention this to the prosecutor prior to trial, and/or retain a private attorney. It may be that there is no legal grounds for your concern about self-incrimination and the court will instruct you to answer the question. The prosecutor also has the option of seeking full immunity from prosecution if he or she believes your testimony is more important than your own potential criminal responsibility.

Plea Negotiations

Many criminal cases are negotiated, whereby an agreement is reached between the State (or city) and the defendant. If a plea agreement is reached, there will be no trial. It is often to the state's advantage to enter into a plea agreement due to lack of evidence, missing witnesses or various other reasons. If you, as a victim, have concerns about restitution or other issues, you should contact your prosecutor and inform him/her of the those concerns so that they might become part of the agreement. The plea agreement is not final until a judge has approved it. While a judge does not have to agree to reduced charges in a plea negotiation, he or she usually does so, on the theory that the prosecution and defense best know the strengths and weaknesses of the case.The judge does not have to follow any sentencing recommendations that may be part of the plea agreement.

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