Written by Lisa Aronson Fontes, PhD.
Although you may feel scared or even panicked about testifying, speaking your truth in court can be empowering. Survivors testify against the person who abused them in all kind of situations, including:
- When requesting an extended or permanent order of protection
- In child custody cases where the survivor is arguing for physical or legal custody and/or to limit visitation
- In divorce trials (most divorces are settled without trials)
- In a criminal child abuse cases where the survivor witnessed felony abuse or is accused of abusing a child
- In criminal cases where the survivor was victimized by physical or sexual violence, or a property crime such as theft
If you are called to testify in a criminal case related to the domestic violence, your testimony may contribute to putting the person who abused you in jail. This can be terrifying and confusing, especially if you still harbor feelings of love mixed in with fear and anger.
This previous piece suggested ways you can prepare to testify in court. These include: learning about the process, preparing a written account of abusive events, building a support system, cutting ties with people who blame you, remembering that abusers are responsible for their actions, freeing yourself from guilt about testifying, establishing clear boundaries with the abuser, and reporting danger red flags so you and your family can be safe as the court date approaches.
In this piece, we’ll discuss the testifying process itself and what that might look like. If you have a victim/witness advocate or a lawyer, be sure to follow their instructions.
Dress neatly for court. You do not need to dress in a fancy way or try to look like a different person. However, wearing clean and neat clothing communicates to the judge that you take what happens in court seriously.
Be serious. Avoid laughing or saying anything about the case until you are called to the stand. Ask anyone who might be accompanying you to avoid joking around.
Speak loudly to the judge or jury. Although the lawyers will be asking you most of the questions, try to look at the judge (or jury, if it is a jury trial) and speak loudly enough for the farthest juror to hear you easily. Even if you usually have a quiet voice, try to make the extra effort. The best testimony in the world will be ineffective if people cannot hear you.
Speak slowly and clearly. Especially if you have an accent that may be less familiar to some of the people in the court, enunciate and take your time with your testimony. This will also help you think.
Ask for an interpreter. If you have concerns about your ability to understand the court proceedings in English or express yourself in English, you have the right to ask for a foreign language interpreter. Try to let the lawyers know about this request in advance.
Managing Time on the Stand
Pause briefly as needed. If you begin to feel anxious, look at a neutral space in the courtroom or at a friend; take a couple of deep breaths and a sip of water. Pause as needed to calm down or gather your thoughts. Resting for bits of time can help you relax and feel more in control.
Take a break. If you need to, you can turn to the judge and request a brief break. Witnesses do this all the time.
Speaking Your Truth
Use your own words. Do not try to use technical or legal words. It is much more effective to describe in your own words exactly what happened. For instance, “he grabbed me by the neck and slammed me to the ground” is more vivid and effective than, “He assaulted me.”
Tell the truth. Do not measure everything you say, wondering if it will hurt or help the case. Just answer the questions as well as your memory allows. Think of your testimony as a “river of truth” that flows continuously over all the obstacles that the other side might try to create.
If you are not sure or don’t remember, say so. If you do not remember parts of what happened or are not sure, just say so. For instance, “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was snowing outside and the kids were on vacation, so I believe it was during their February school break.” Do not make up any answers for any reason.
Do not volunteer information. Most of the time, your lawyer will encourage you to answer only the questions that are posed to you. Avoid providing your own opinions and conclusions and do not repeat what others have told you, unless you are asked about these.
Correct your mistakes. If you realize that you said something that is incorrect—maybe you confused two incidents, for instance—it is okay to ask to correct something you said earlier. You are human and humans make mistakes.
Staying the Course
Do not fall for leading questions. Sometimes the lawyer on the other side will try to get you to say something incorrect by leading you down a tangled path. Pay special attention to questions of this kind. They often start with, “Wouldn’t you agree that….” Feel free to pause and request that the lawyer ask the question in a different way.
Admit to confusion. Sometimes the lawyer on the other side will string together a series of questions or use complicated words to confuse you, or in other ways try to get you to say something inaccurate. It is fine to say, “I don’t understand the question,” as many times as you need to. Or, “I am confused by that question.”
Remember that you are not on trial. Some defense attorneys can be aggressive and try to poke holes in your testimony or make you look less reliable. Focus on what was done to you. You can ask the judge if you have to answer a specific question, or tell the judge that a question is embarrassing.
Stay calm and centered. Many people feel nervous and even frightened about testifying in court. This is to be expected. However, try to avoid getting angry or flustered. Take that break if you need to, and take your time.
Most likely, you have information that no one else has. Because your testimony is so important, the court has hundreds of rules in place to protect you while you are in court and also before and after. If anyone tries to intimidate you into not testifying or changing your testimony, be sure to report it right away to the prosecutor (District Attorney’s office, or your victim/witness advocate). If you have specific fears, for instance that the defendant has threatened to harm you or your family if you testify, be sure to relay these to the court. If the defendant has access to guns, be sure to mention this.
It is brave and heroic to speak the truth publicly about a violent crime. This is especially true because you probably know the defendant well and may still have strong feelings for them. Your testimony helps keep you, your family, and your community safe. While you cannot control the outcome of the case, you will know that you did what you could to ensure that justice is served.