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Tips for Testifying in Criminal Court for Victims of Rape, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse

veryone is nervous before testifying. Publicly speaking the truth of your experience against a violent crime is a heroic and powerful thing to do. It's natural to be nervous. And even more so because you were the direct victim of the crime, and because as a victim of rape or domestic violence, you probably knew the accused well and at some time trusted and maybe loved him. You're testifying not only against violence, but against human betrayal too.

One of the best ways to start calming your anxieties is by appreciating that power and worth of your testimony. Your testimony is the pivotal force for setting things right against the crime that took place, both for you and for your community. Even if your testimony doesn't lead to a conviction, the truth you tell, just by having spoken it in a court of law, is a good and permanent part of the healing power of justice, and a way to heal your own feelings too.

ecause of the great value of your testimony to society, there are hundreds of courtroom rules to protect you and your story while you are testifying. There are rules that protect you from inflammatory, prejudicial remarks, from unfair questions and distortions, and from irrelevant attempts to undermine your truth. Strict laws also make it a crime for anyone to try to dissuade you from testifying or to try to influence your testimony in any way. If anyone attempts to influence what you will say in court, you should report it right away to the police or prosecutors working your case.

The court has also been given strong authority by the community to act forcefully on your truth; enough power that in responding to your testimony, the court can stop the wrong in its tracks. And more. By its authority, the court in response to your testimony can deliver a strong public warning to all who would think to behave like this again, and a far-reaching message of hope for all who are still trapped in the wrongs of rape, domestic violence and child abuse. The courtroom isn't perfect yet, especially for victims of violence against women and children. But remember, thousands of women and children before you, by their own willingness to testify against this violence, have strengthened the courtroom stage for you.

So one of the best things you can do for your nervousness before testifying is to take great pride and dignity in the good you are doing for yourself, for your community, and for all the women who will come after you.

Here are some other things that should help you too.

earn as much as possible about the case. Before testifying, you should try to find out: What are the exact charges in the case? What is the purpose of the hearing at which you are about to testify? What are the names of the prosecutor, the police officer or detective, the names of the defense attorney and the judge? Is there a victim advocate assigned to your case? If not, ask for one. Do you have an assigned time to meet with the prosecutor before testifying? If not, call ahead and ask for a meeting. Has the prosecutor offered any deals to the accused? What is the deal, and what does it mean? And you should have a chance to get answers to all the specific questions you have, like What happens if...if I can't remember something, if the defense brings up my driving record, if the court finds out I'm an undocumented immigrant, if the accused lies about me, if he sends a friend out to get me, etc.?

The best places to get the answers to these and other questions are from the District Attorney's office (in Sonoma County, call 565-2311), from victim advocates (like Women's Justice Center at 575-3150), or from the detective or police officer who investigated your case. Before calling or meeting with officials, it's a very good idea to write down all your questions and comments you have in a notebook. Confusion is a big source of anxiety. Getting your questions fully answered is an excellent help for your fears.

nother thing that can be very helpful is if the prosecutor or a victim advocate can take you on a tour of a courtroom before you have to testify.

Arrive early at the courthouse. And be prepared to wait! It often happens that a number of cases are scheduled in the same courtroom for the same time. The order in which the cases will be called is unpredictable. And that can be very exasperating, especially if you're already nervous to begin with.

Bring enjoyable things to do while you way. Bring things like magazines, word puzzles, or a walkman, and try very hard not to bring children. Best of all, bring a friend or two. Not only can a friend help you through the waiting periods, but if you wish, you have a right to have your friends in meetings with you and the prosecutor (According to California Penal Code Section 679.04) and in the courtroom with you when you testify, including if that person is a witness in the case, (California Penal Code Section 868.5).

he Prosecutor will Protect and Facilitate Your Testimony. One of the biggest worries many people have before testifying is that they imagine sitting in front of the courtroom faced with the nearly impossible task of trying to make a logical story out of what has been a traumatic and chaotic event. The reality is, you don't have to worry about this at all. That's not your job. It's the prosecutor's job. (The prosecutor is also known as the deputy district attorney or the assistant district attorney.)

The prosecutor's overall role in the case is to bring the charges against the accused, and to prove the charges "beyond a reasonable doubt". As the victim of the crime, you are the prosecutor's main witness. That's why once you begin to testify, the prosecutor is going to do everything possible to make you feel at ease, to help you move through the story comfortably and logically, and to help you highlight the main points of your experience. And when the defense attorney begins asking you questions, the prosecutor will be listening to protect you and your testimony from any unfair line of questioning.

our testimony in the courtroom begins with the prosecutor asking you questions. Most prosecutors begin slowly by asking you a number of simple questions, such as asking you your name, where you live, how long you lived there, etc. The prosecutor does this until he or she sees that you're comfortable, and that the questions and answers have settled into an easy back and forth. Then, in the same tone of short, simple questions, the prosecutor will lead you on a logical, step by step, progression through the events of the crime. All you have to do is listen carefully to the prosecutor's questions, and one by one, answer the questions honestly, simply, and clearly. During your testimony, the prosecutor is not going to try to trick you, confuse you, or make you look bad.*(see note below)

Court- Certified Interpreters are Highly Qualified, and Will Translate Your Testimony Word for Word. If you feel more comfortable speaking in your native language, and almost everyone does, ask the court for an interpreter. Court-certified interpreters are among the most highly trained interpreters in the world. Almost always, you can relax in the confidence that your words and meaning are being very carefully and accurately translated to the court. If at any time you have doubt about the translation of a particular point, motion to the interpreter who will be sitting right beside you, and repeat and explain your thought in another way.

he Pause that Refreshes. Take as Many as You Like. One of the things that happens when you're nervous is that the sensation of time gets warped. Sometimes it seems that time is speeded up, sometimes it seems like moments last forever. If you purposely take brief pauses, this puts you right back in control of time. Take a couple of deep breaths, rest your eyes on a part of the courtroom where nothing is happening, take a sip of water, look at your friend, take a moment to think about your answer, a little bit here and a little there, and you'll begin to relax and feel in control. Another good time to take a moment for yourself is when the attorneys are arguing over each other's objections to questions that have been asked. You can listen if you like, but because the discussion pertains to a question of law, it doesn't require your participation, and it's a good time to take another, all-important, pause that refreshes.

And if at some point you're feeling overwhelmed, you can always turn to the judge or the prosecutor and ask for a ten-minute break. It's not at all unusual for a witness to do this, so don't be timid about asking. In fact, any time while you're on the stand, you can ask the attorneys to repeat questions, you can (and should) tell them immediately if you don't understand a question, and you can turn to the judge and ask if you have to answer a particular question. If a question is especially embarrassing to you, or painful, you can preface your answer by saying "It's embarrassing to talk about this..." If you don't remember something exactly, it's important for you to say that too. "I don't remember exactly, but it seemed like it was about fifteen minutes."

on't Let the Defense Attorney Get to You. He or She Is Just Doing Their Job. And You're NOT on Trial! The defense attorney's questioning of you will follow the prosecutor's questions. A good defense attorney will probe your testimony to make sure you're telling the truth. That's the defense attorney's job, and it's an important one. If you think about it, this cross examination of your testimony by the defense attorney helps create the strong public confidence in the decisions made by the court based on your testimony. So don't get rattled when the defense attorney questions what you had to say. Whenever possible give honest, short, yes- no answers to defense questions. If you have to give an explanation, try as much as is true to explain things in terms of what the accused did wrong to you. A victim that restates the accused's crimes in response to a defense attorney's questions, is going to strongly discourage the defense from getting out of line.

nce a defense attorney sees that you're telling the basic truth about what happened, some, not all, will then go on to fish for other kinds of weaknesses in your testifying. They may look for tiny contradictions, such as "ten minutes ago you said it was a blue shirt, now you say it was green." Whatever you do, don't get upset. When the defense attorney gets down to harping on minor details, that just shows the defense attorney is desperate. Most people who are telling a true story will, at one point or another, have minor contradictions in the telling. So correct whatever you need to correct, give a brief explanation only if necessary. Say you're not sure, if you're not sure. But whatever you do, don't get upset. That will only encourage the defense to do this more and more.

And always remember, the prosecutor is there to stop any unfair questioning by the defense attorney. The prosecutor does this by saying to the judge, "I object." So don't panic. Slow down, and give the prosecutor time to object. In fact, look directly at the prosecutor if you feel like you're being harassed by the defense. And if you think the prosecutor is missing it, ask the judge directly, "Do I have to answer that question"?

Another thing defense attorneys sometimes do when they know you're telling the truth, is to try and confuse you into saying something you don't mean to say by tangling many thoughts together. If you feel confused, just don't answer the question. Say out loud that you're confused. And keep saying you're confused until the defense attorney figures out that you're just plain not going to answer confusing questions.

ou Are Not On Trial! One other thing desperate defense attorneys do, and by far the most difficult for victims to handle, is that the defense attorney may ask you questions about something they believe you feel guilty about. Often the accused, because he knows you well, has helped the attorney put together a list of these things. You had an affair, you're on probation, you were using drugs, you're in the country illegally, etc. Almost always, the defense attorney is not allowed to bring these things up in court because, you're not on trial! But that doesn't mean defense attorneys won't try to sneak these questions in, for one reason only, in hopes that he or she can get you to act guilty and defensive on the stand.

So here's what to do about all things that you're afraid might come up in the court, and that are eating at you, and making you fearful of testifying. Make a list of the worst things you can imagine, ask the prosecutor or a victim advocate ahead of time, "What will happen if they bring this up?" Most of the time the prosecutor or advocate will tell you that the defense can't bring these things into the proceedings, and that the prosecutor will put an immediate stop to it if the defense even goes near it. If for any reason, however, one or the other negative things about you is relevant to the court, then the prosecutor or advocate can remind you of this, "Just tell the truth, and remember, you're not on trial." "Yes, I lied to the police about using drugs, because I didn't think the police would believe me about the rape if I told them I was using drugs." And don't forget, don't get upset. Slow down. And give the prosecutor time to object.

efense Tactics Are Nothing But Small Rocks Over Which Your River of Truth will Continue to Flow. And this is the perfect time to doubly remind yourself of what's most important of all. By testifying in a court of law against the crimes of rape, domestic violence, or child abuse, you are performing a most essential and heroic civic task for keeping your community safe. No one in the world is perfect. And knowing ahead of time that the defense attorney might try to dig at one or the other of your imperfections, only makes your willingness to testify more admirable. So hold onto the pride and dignity that you so greatly deserve. And any defense tactics attempting to undermine you will be nothing but small rocks over which your river of truth will continue to flow.

* A note on the prosecutor. It is true that while you're testifying, the prosecutor is going to be doing everything possible to protect you. At the same time, it's important to remind you that the prosecutor is not your attorney. The prosecutor is the people's attorney. And there may very well be times in the case, when the prosecutor is not acting in your interests, or may be acting directly against your interests. This may especially occur at the charging of the case, or in the plea bargaining phase. The prosecutor may be willing to undercharge, or "give the case away" for far less than is just, or for much less than the evidence can prove. So before you accept or agree to the prosecutor' handling of these aspects of the case, talk with victim advocates or other officials about your concerns.

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Women's Justice Center,

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