By The Honorable Earl G. Penrod
WITNESSES MAY BE ASKED TO respond to questions that are not particularly well crafted or are purposely structured to cause the witness difficulty in providing a straightforward answer, such as when questions are comprised of multiple parts. For example, “Officer, yes or no: isn’t it true that you have stopped my client on three prior occasions in the last six months and let him go without arresting him for any crime?”
If the multiple assertions of a question are all true or all false, a straightforward answer may be possible. However, there are times when parts of the question require a positive response, but other parts call for a negative response, while some assertions may be mostly true or mostly but not entirely false.
Whenever a witness responds to a compound question with a simple yes or no, the witness must make sure that the answer is accurate for all parts of the question. But if the answer is clear, the witness should provide the appropriate response, even if the witness believes there is a possibility the answer may be misinterpreted without context and elaboration. Reluctance in answering questions or persistently asking for questions to be restated may negatively impact the officer’s credibility, as it may be interpreted as a lack of candor.
It is the goal and responsibility of the attorneys to elicit favorable testimony, and a witness should not become frustrated or argumentative when not given immediate opportunity to fully explain answers.
When asked a compound question that cannot be answered with a yes or no, a witness should state that a single word response is not appropriate because the question has multiple parts. Also, the witness should offer to provide answers if the attorney wishes to ask the questions separately.
Alternatively, the witness may provide a yes or no answer to each part, assuming each response would be factually accurate. For example, the police officer could respond: “yes, to the first part of your question, no to the second part of your question and yes to the third part of your question.” Often, such a response prompts a follow-up question that gives the witness a chance to explain.
Tip to testify: When asked a compound question, a witness should proceed with caution and provide a yes or no answer only when the response is accurate for all parts of the question.
The Honorable Earl G. Penrod is a Judge of the Gibson Superior Court in Indiana.