Characters in court
Today I spent a few hours in the Brand van Zyl Law Library at the University of Cape Town. As an alumnus, I know the campus fairly well and I have been in the library previously for research on Shadow Self. It is always strange to go back to university for the day, but apart from the wonderful service – a stack of books piled up on the subject of cross-examination in the South African legal system, arranged by the librarian for me, I absolutely loved the quiet.
How wonderful is it to be in an environment where everybody has their heads down and are engrossed in study? There is something almost seductive about a library. The book stacks, the quiet sounds of flipping pages, the smell of paper. And it is amazing what you can get accomplished in terms of research in just a few hours. No interruptions. I know that Gretchen Rubin, the ‘happiness expert’ writes in a library and sitting in one myself with no bombardments from dogs, children, or phone calls I could see why.
This visit was the natural result of my meeting with Jan Luitingh – the family attorney who has supported me from a legal perspective throughout the writing of A Fish Out of Water, which I hope to finish by the end of May. He advised me that cross-examination is a master skill, an art, and not one I can simply ‘write’ off. So I read many examples of the finer points of cross, as well as some key elements to make it work in one’s writing. Here are some key questions the legal counsel will need to think about:
- The cross-examiner must listen carefully to the witness’s answer: L.A.E.R.
- Look for contradictions with other witnesses.
- How is the testimony of witnesses corroborated?
- Where can you show untruthfulness or exaggeration?
- Show the demeanour of the witness by getting him or her to react to questions.
- How important are the items handed in as material evidence in terms of your case?
- The cross-examiner should keep a poker face – whatever he or she hears.
- Frame your cross-examiner’s questions to elicit only one bit of information at a time.
- A good cross-examiner will not ask imprecise or sloppy questions.
- A good cross-examiner will not end up in an argument with the witness
- A cross-examiner will often use repetition, for example:
- A: I was afraid if I stayed, I would have another drink.
- Q: You were afraid that if you stayed, you would have another drink. Now why, may I ask you, Mr Williams, was that a concern?
What advice can you offer writers who are dealing with cross?