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Wellman: The Art of Cross-Examination

If by experience we have learned the first lesson of our art, to control our manner toward the witness even under the most trying circumstances, it then becomes important that we should turn our attention to the matter of our cross-examination. By our manner toward him we may have in a measure disarmed him, or at least put him off his guard, while his memory and conscience are being ransacked by subtle and searching questions, the scope of which shall be hardly apparent to himself; but it is only with the matter of our cross-examination that we can hope to destroy him.

What shall be our first mode of attack? Shall we adopt the fatal method of those we see around us daily in the courts, and proceed to take the witness over the same story that he has already given our adversary, in the absurd hope that he is going to change it in the repetition, and not retell it with double effect upon the jury? Or shall we rather avoid carefully his original story, except in so far as is necessary to refer to it in order to point out its weak spots? Whatever we do, let us do it with quiet dignity, with absolute fairness to the witness; and let us frame our questions in such simple language that there can be no misunderstanding or confusion. Let us imagine ourselves in the jury box, so that we may see the evidence from their standpoint. We are not trying to make a reputation for ourselves with the audience as ‘smart’ cross-examiners. We are thinking rather of our client and our employment by him to win the jury upon his side of the case. Let us also avoid asking questions recklessly, without any definite purpose. Unskillful questions are worse than none at all, and only tend to uphold rather than to destroy the witness.

All through the direct testimony of our imaginary witness, it will be remembered, we were watching his every movement and expression. Did we find an opening for our cross-examination? Did we detect the weak spot in his narrative? If so, let us waste no time, but go direct to the point. It may be that the witness’s situation in respect to the parties or the subject-matter of the suit should be disclosed to the jury, as one reason why his testimony has been shaded somewhat in favor of the side on which he testifies. It may be that he has a direct interest in the result of the litigation, or is to receive some indirect benefit therefrom. Or he may have some other tangible motive which he can gently be made to disclose. Perhaps the witness is only suffering from that partisanship, so fatal to fair evidence, of which oftentimes the witness himself is not conscious. It may even be that, if the jury only knew the scanty means the witness has had for obtaining a correct and certain knowledge of the very facts to which he has sworn so glibly, aided by the adroit questioning of the opposing counsel, this in itself would go far toward weakening the effect of his testimony. It may appear, on the other hand, that the witness had the best possible opportunity to observe the facts he speaks of, but had not the intelligence to observe these facts correctly. Two people may witness the same occurrence and yet take away with them an entirely different impression of it; but each, when called to the witness stand, may be willing to swear to that impression as a fact. Obviously, both accounts of the same transaction cannot be true; whose impressions were wrong? Which had the better opportunity to see? Which had the keener power of perception? All this we may very properly term the matter of our cross-examination.

It is one thing to have the opportunity of observation, or even the intelligence to observe correctly, but it is still another to be able to retain accurately, for any length of time, what we have once seen or heard, and what is perhaps more difficult still to be able to describe it intelligibly. Many witnesses have seen one part of a transaction and heard about another part, and later on become confused in their own minds, or perhaps only in their modes of expression, as to what they have seen themselves and what they have heard from others. All witnesses are prone to exaggerate to enlarge or minimize the facts to which they, take oath.

A very common type of witness, met with almost daily, is the man who, having witnessed some event years ago, suddenly finds that he is to be called as a court witness. He immediately attempts to recall his original impressions; and gradually, as he talks with the attorney who is to examine him, he amplifies his story with new details which he leads himself, or is led, to believe are recollections and which he finally swears to as facts. Many people seem to fear that an “I don’t know” answer will be attributed to ignorance on their part. Although perfectly honest in intention, they are apt, in consequence, to complete their story by recourse to their imagination. And few witnesses fail, at least in some part of their story, to entangle facts with their own beliefs and inferences.

All these considerations should readily suggest a line of questions, varying with each witness examined, that will, if closely followed, be likely to separate appearance from reality and to reduce exaggerations to their proper proportions. It must further be borne in mind that the jury should not merely see the mistake; they should be made to appreciate at the time why and whence it arose. It is fresher then and makes a more lasting effect than if left until the summing up, and then drawn to the attention of the jury.

The experienced examiner can usually tell, after a few simple questions, what line to pursue. Picture the scene in your own mind; closely inquire into the sources of the witness’s information, and draw your own conclusions as to how his mistake arose, and why he formed his erroneous impressions. Exhibit plainly your belief in his integrity and your desire to be fair with him, and try to beguile him into being candid with you. Then when the particular foible which has affected his testimony has once been discovered, he can easily be led to expose it to the jury. His mistakes should be drawn out often by inference rather than by direct question, because all witnesses have a dread of self-contradiction. If he sees the connection between your inquiries and his own story, he will draw upon his imagination for explanations, before you get the chance to point out to him the inconsistency between his later statement and his original one. It is often wise to break the effect of a witness’s story by putting questions to him that will acquaint the jury at once with the fact that there is another more probable story to be told later on, to disclose to them something of the defence, as it were. Avoid the mistake, so common among the inexperienced, of making much of trifling discrepancies. It has been aptly said that “juries have no respect for small triumphs over a witness’s self-possession or memory.” Allow the loquacious witness to talk on; he will be sure to involve himself in difficulties from which he can never extricate himself. Some witnesses prove altogether too much; encourage them and lead them by degrees into exaggerations that will conflict with the common sense of the jury. Under no circumstances put a false construction on the words of a witness; there are few faults in an advocate more fatal with a jury.

If, perchance, you obtain a really favorable answer, leave it and pass quietly to some other inquiry. The inexperienced examiner in all probability will repeat the question with the idea of impressing the admission upon his hearers, instead of reserving it for the summing up, and will attribute it to bad luck that his witness corrects his answer or modifies it in some way, so that the point is lost. He is indeed a poor judge of human nature who supposes that if he exults over his success during the cross-examination, he will not quickly put the witness on his guard to avoid all future favorable disclosures.

David Graham, a prudent and successful cross-examiner, once said, perhaps more in jest than anything else, “A lawyer should never ask a witness on cross-examination a question unless in the first place he knew what the answer would be, or in the second place he didn’t care.” This is something on the principle of the lawyer who claimed that the result of most trials depended upon which side perpetrated the greatest blunders in cross-examination. Certainly no lawyer should ask a critical question unless he is sure of the answer.

Mr. Sergeant Ballantine, in his “Experiences”, quotes an instance in the trial of a prisoner on the charge of homicide, where a once famous English barrister had been induced by the urgency of an attorney, although against his own judgment, to ask a question on cross-examination, the answer to which convicted his client. Upon receiving the answer, he turned to the attorney who had advised him to ask it, and said, emphasizing every word, “Go home; cut your throat; and when you meet your client in hell, beg his pardon.”

It is well, sometimes, in a case where you believe that the witness is reluctant to develop the whole truth, so to put questions that the answers you know will be elicited may come by way of a surprise and in the light of improbability to the jury. I remember a recent incident, illustrative of this point, which occurred in a suit brought to recover the insurance on a large warehouse full of goods that had been burnt to the ground. The insurance companies had been unable to find any stock-book which would show the amount of goods in stock at the time of the fire. One of the witnesses to the fire happened to be the plaintiff’s bookkeeper, who on the direct examination testified to all the details of the fire, but nothing about the books. The cross-examination was confined to these few pointed questions.

“I suppose you had an iron safe in your office, in which you kept your books of account?” “Yes, sir.” “Did that burn up?” “Oh, no.” “Were you present when it was opened after the fire?” “Yes, sir.” “Then won’t you be good enough to hand me the stock-book that we may show the jury exactly what stock you had on hand at the time of the fire on which you claim loss? (This was the point of the case and the jury were not prepared for the answer which followed.) “I haven’t it, sir.” “What, haven’t the stock-book? You don’t mean you have lost it?” “It wasn’t in the safe, sir.” “Wasn’t that the proper place for it?’: “Yes, sir.” “How was it that the book wasn’t there?” “It had evidently been left out the night before the fire by mistake.” Some of the jury at once drew the inference that the all-important stock-book was being suppressed, and refused to agree with their fellows against the insurance companies.

The average mind is much wiser than many suppose. Questions can be put to a witness under cross-examination, in argumentative form, often with far greater effect upon the minds of the jury than if the same line of reasoning were reserved for the summing up. The juryman sees the point for himself, as if it were his own discovery, and clings to it all the more tenaciously. During the cross-examination of Henry Ward Beecher, in the celebrated Tilton-Beecher case, and after Mr. Beecher had denied his alleged intimacy with Mr. Tilton’s wife, Judge Fullerton read a passage from one of Mr. Beecher’s sermons to the effect that if a person commits a great sin, the exposure of which would cause misery to others, such a person would not be justified in confessing it, merely to relieve his own conscience. Fullerton then looked straight into Mr. Beecher’s eyes and said, “Do you still consider that sound doctrine?” Mr. Beecher replied, “I do.” The inference a juryman might draw from this question and answer would constitute a subtle argument upon that branch of the case.

The entire effect of the testimony of an adverse witness can sometimes be destroyed by a pleasant little passage-at-arms in which he is finally held up to ridicule before the jury, and all that he has previously said against you disappears in the laugh that accompanies him from the witness box. In a recent Metropolitan Street Railway case a witness who had been badgered rather persistently on cross-examination, finally straightened himself up in the witness chair and said pertly, “I have not come here asking you to play with me. Do you take me for Anna Held?”1

“I was not thinking of Anna Held,” replied the counsel quietly; “supposing you try Ananias!”

The witness was enraged, the jury laughed, and the lawyer, who had really made nothing out of the witness up to this time, sat down.

These little triumphs are, however, by no means always one-sided. Often, if the counsel gives him an opening, a clever witness will counter on him in a most humiliating fashion, certain to meet with the hearty approval of jury and audience. At the Worcester Assizes, in England, a case was being tried which involved the soundness of a horse, and a clergyman had been called as a witness who succeeded only in giving a rather confused account of the transaction. A blustering counsel on the other side, after many attempts to get at the facts upon cross-examination, blurted out, “Pray, sir, do you know the difference between a horse and a cow?” “I acknowledge my ignorance,” replied the clergyman; “I hardly do know the difference between a horse and a cow, or between a bull and a bully only a bull, I am told, has horns, and a bully (bowing respectfully to the counsel), luckily for me, has none.”2 Reference is made in a subsequent chapter to the cross-examination of Dr. in the Carlyle Harris case, where is related at length a striking example of success in this method of examination.

It may not be uninteresting to record in this connection one or two cases illustrative of matter that is valuable in cross-examination in personal damage suits where the sole object of counsel is to reduce the amount of the jury’s verdict, and to puncture the pitiful tale of suffering told by the plaintiff in such cases.

A New York commission merchant, named Metts, sixty-six years of age, was riding in a Columbus Avenue open car. As the car neared the curve at Fifty-third Street and Seventh Avenue, and while he was in the act of closing an open window in the front of the car at the request of an old lady passenger, the car gave a sudden, violent lurch, and he was thrown into the street, receiving injuries from which, at the time of the trial, he had suffered for three years.

Counsel for the plaintiff went into his client’s sufferings in great detail. Plaintiff had had concussion of the brain, loss of memory, bladder difficulties, a broken leg, nervous prostration, constant pain in his back. And the attempt to alleviate the pain attendant upon all these difficulties was gone into with great detail. To cap all, the attending physician had testified that the reasonable value of his professional services was the modest sum of $2500.

Counsel for the railroad, before cross-examining, had made a critical examination of the doctor’s face and bearing in the witness chair, and had concluded that, if pleasantly handled, he could be made to testify pretty nearly to the truth, whatever it might be. He concluded to spar for an opening, and it came within the first halfdozen questions:

Counsel. “What medical name, doctor, would you give to the plaintiff’s present ailment?”

Doctor. “He has what is known as ‘traumatic microsis.”

Counsel. “Microsis, doctor? That means, does it not, the habit, or disease as you may call it, of making much of ailments that an ordinary healthy man would pass by as of no account?”

Doctor. “That is right, sir.”

Counsel (smiling). “I hope you haven’t got this disease, doctor, have you?”

Doctor. “Not that I am aware of, sir.”

Counsel. “Then we ought to be able to get a very fair statement from you of this man’s troubles, ought we not?”

Doctor. “I hope so, sir.”

The opening had been found; witness was already flattered into agreeing with all suggestions, and warned against exaggeration.

Counsel. “Let us take up the bladder trouble first. Do not practically all men who have reached the age of sixty-six have troubles of one kind or another that result in more or less irritation of the bladder?”

Doctor. “Yes, that is very common with old men.”

Counsel. “You said Mr. Metts was deaf in one ear. I noticed that he seemed to hear the questions asked him in court particularly well; did you notice it?”

Doctor. “I did.”

Counsel. “At the age of sixty-six are not the majority of men gradually failing in their hearing?”

Doctor. “Yes, sir, frequently.”

Counsel. “Frankly, doctor, don’t you think this man hears remarkably well for his age, leaving out the deaf ear altogether?”

Doctor. “I think he does.”

Counsel (keeping the ball rolling). “I don’t think you have even the first symptoms of this ‘traumatic microsis,’ Doctor.”

Doctor (pleased). “I haven’t got it at all.”

Counsel. “You said Mr. Metis had had concussion of the brain. Has not every boy who has fallen over backward, when skating on the ice, and struck his head, also had what you physicians would call ‘concussion of the brain’?”

Doctor. “Yes, sir.”

Counsel. “But I understood you to say that this plaintiff had had, in addition, hemorrhages of the brain. Do you mean to tell us that he could have had hemorrhages of the brain and be alive to-day?”

Doctor. “They were microscopic hemorrhages.”

Counsel. “That is to say, one would have to take a microscope to find them?”

Doctor. “That is right.”

Counsel. “You do not mean us to understand, doctor, that you have not cured him of these microscopic hemorrhages?”

Doctor. “I have cured him; that is right.”

Counsel. “You certainly were competent to set his broken leg or you wouldn’t have attempted it; did you get a good union?”

Doctor. “Yes, he has got a good, strong, healthy leg.”

Counsel having elicited, by the “smiling method,” all the required admissions, suddenly changed his whole bearing toward the witness, and continued pointedly:

Counsel. “And you said that $2500 would be a fair and reasonable charge for your services. It is three years since Mr. Metts was injured. Have you sent him no bill?”

Doctor. “Yes, sir, I have.”

Counsel. “Let me see it. (Turning to plaintiff’s Counsel.) Will either of you let me have the bill?”

Doctor. “I haven’t it, sir.”

Counsel (astonished). “What was the amount of it?”

Doctor. “$1000.”

Counsel (savagely). “Why do you charge the railroad company two and a half times as much as you charge the patient himself?”

Doctor (embarrassed at this sudden change on part of counsel). “You asked me what my services were worth.”

Counsel. “Didn’t you charge your patient the full worth of your services?”

Doctor (no answer).

Counsel (quickly). “How much have you been paid on your bill on your oath?”

Doctor. “He paid me $100 at one time, that is, two years ago; and at two different times since he has paid me $30.”

Counsel. “And he is a rich commission merchant downtown!”(And with something between a sneer and a laugh counsel sat down.)

An amusing incident, leading to the exposure of a manifest fraud, occurred recently in another of the many damage suits brought against the Metropolitan Street Railway and growing out of a collision between two of the company’s electric cars.

The plaintiff, a laboring man, had been thrown to the street pavement from the platform of the car by the force of the collision, and had dislocated his shoulder. He had testified in his own behalf that he had been permanently injured in so far as he had not been able to follow his usual employment for the reason that he could not raise his arm above a point parallel with his shoulder. Upon cross-examination the attorney for the railroad asked the witness a few sympathetic questions about his sufferings, and upon getting on a friendly basis with him asked him “to be good enough to show the jury the extreme limit to which he could raise his arm since the accident.” The plaintiff slowly and with considerable difficulty raised his arm to the parallel of his shoulder. “Now, using the same arm, show the jury how high you could get it up before the accident,” quietly continued the attorney; whereupon the witness extended his arm to its full height above his head, amid peals of laughter from the court and jury.

In a case of murder, to which the defence of insanity was set up, a medical witness called on behalf of the accused swore that in his opinion the accused, at the time he killed the deceased, was affected with a homicidal mania, and urged to the act by an irresistible impulse. The judge, not satisfied with this, first put the witness some questions on other subjects, and then asked, “Do you think the accused would have acted as he did if a policeman had been present?” to which the witness at once answered in the negative. Thereupon the judge remarked, “Your definition of an irresistible impulse must then be an impulse irresistible at all times except when a policeman is present.”


  1. This occurrence was at the time when the actress Anna Held was singing her popular stage song, “Won’t you come and play with me.” ↩︎
  2. “Curiosities of Law and Lawyers.” ↩︎