How Jury Trials Look on TV

Trials on TV are transparently dramatic. Somebody gets up on the stand and they say, “Oh, I’m compelled to confess. I’m the one who killed the guy.” This never happens.

No witness ever testifies in trial, and then, in cross examination, spills their guts and says, “I’m sorry, I’m a big liar.” Nobody ever does that. Trials are far more subtle than that. You set a guy up and let him hang himself. You can demonstrate to the jury that he’s lying. But it’s much more subtle than the guy confessing that he’s a liar. That doesn’t ever happen.

One technique that can work with an arrogant witness is that you know the witness has an agenda, and that he doesn’t ever want to help you. All you have to do is make him think you want the car to be red, and he will testify it’s green. If I make him think I want it to be red, he will run to green.

But you do get witnesses on the stand who aren’t lying?

Absolutely. There are people who are completely honest. If I ask them, “Sir, to be fair to the jury, the fact is you really didn’t have a very good view of the scene, did you?” They will just admit that they didn’t. Or, I might say, “You know the car, it really could have been green, couldn’t it?” And they will give you that, because they are being honest. Or, “Sir, to be fair, you recognize that you could actually be mistaken about this, couldn’t you?” You see what I’m getting at? They will give you those things, because they are being honest.

If they don’t, if they have an agenda, well then you’ll use a different technique because you want to demonstrate that they have a slanted view of the case. They have an agenda. They want you to lose. Happens all the time with police officers. They get tied into a case. They are convinced your client is guilty, and they don’t want to help you. They want you to lose.

You can ask the officer, “To be fair to the jury, the truth is that you are a biased witness, aren’t you?” And invariably, they will say, “No, I’m not biased.” “Well then when you get finished testifying, would you mind coming down, sitting down at my table, and helping me during the case? You’ve been over there sitting by the prosecutor helping him. If you are unbiased, why don’t you come sit by me and help me with my case? It’s kind of obvious, you’re trying to get my client convicted.”

I won’t ask that question if there is an honest officer, because he will admit, “Yeah, I am biased. I do think your guy did it. I want your client convicted.” They won’t be defensive about it. If I was teaching a class on how police officers should testify, I’d tell them all, “Be candid and straightforward all the time.” You can’t manipulate a witness who is like that. You can only get out of them what you can, but you can’t manipulate them, because they are telling the truth. Good or bad, they are going to stick to the truth. But you can make a biased witness and you can take advantage of a biased witness. That’s fun to do.