New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Inside The Well, Trial Practice


October 7th, 2008

Lawyer Caught Coaching Witness In the Courtroom (Ted Stevens Trial)

The news came out from the Sen. Ted Stevens corruption trial: A lawyer was sending signals to the witness on the stand. Oy. According to this AP report:

The federal judge overseeing the case accused the lawyer for the government’s star witness of making secret signals to his client during a crucial cross-examination.

Those of us who stand in the well of the courtroom for a living will see, or sense, this from time to time. It comes generally in three distinct forms, and I suggest here ways to handle that problem:

1. The speaking objection. Opposing counsel doesn’t like the question and thinks the witness needs a little help. Thus comes the “speaking objection” in which the lawyer blurts out, in the guise of an objection, that the witness already said xyz on the subject, or in some other way hints the witness how to answer. Some judges already have sharp rules in place for this, but others don’t.

Solution: If it is obvious, and the judge hasn’t jumped in, you audibly object to the lawyer coaching the witness with a speaking objection. Of course, you may incur the wrath of the judge with this, so tread carefully. Sidebar conferences may be called for. And, of course, at the earliest opportunity when the jury is out of the room a record should be made. It is one way to stop it from recurring, even if the damage may already be done.

2. The head shake. The attorney makes a face or shakes his/her head. This can be a subconscious thing. The problem is that it may not be seen by you if you are in the middle of a cross exam and, let’s put this mildly, have a brain preoccupied with getting that task done. One big clue to help you out? Watch the eyes of the witness. If you know your case and the cross-exam to be done, you won’t have your head buried in your notes and will see the eyes of the witness swivel as s/h seeks help.

Solution: When you see the witness look at opposing counsel, that is the time to say “Your lawyer can’t help you with that,” or “the jury is over here,” or a similar comment/question as the situation warrants.

3. Deliberate signals. In the Stevens case at the links above we have, according to the judge, deliberate signals being given. The solution though is the same as the head shake: Watch the eyes and pull the witness back to the testimony.

The only thing you can’t do is stay quiet (unless the judge has already acted, in which case silence is the order of the day unless you are asking for a curative instruction of some kind). So long as the issue is raised by either you or the judge, you can bet your last dollar that everyone in the courtroom will now be attuned to it if it happens in the future.

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