There is the temptation, it’s almost primal, to be derisive, if not outright mean, when cross-examining a witness who has lied in the past or is lying on the stand. Even if it’s only theatrical, to provide an example to the jury how they should regard the witness with suspicion or contempt, it seems almost natural to treat her with disgust.
But it’s important to bear in mind that, even if the substance of the cross-examination establishes the witness is a liar or unsavory individual, the jury might not reward an examining lawyer–or his client–if he crosses the line. The real challenge, however, comes when litigating a case on the road, in a venue whose culture draws “the line” of civility differently than an attorney’s home court. I’m thinking here about an experience my colleague had some years back when he (a Los Angeles lawyer) tried a civil case in Hawaii.
I’ve visited Hawaii a few times, but never had an opportunity to conduct business of any kind beyond securing a reservation for dinner or a scuba dive. Frankly, I’ve never given a thought about how Hawaiian citizens would receive a cross-examination of a witness differently than someone from Los Angeles. But it turns out that they don’t cotton well to a lawyer who takes a harsh tone to a witness during examination. This became clear to my colleague (this is hearsay, of course, I wasn’t there) after he cross-examined an important witness using a less-than-gentle tone. Apparently it was clear to everyone in the courtroom that the jurors did not react well as the witness was being subjected to a tone of questioning we Californians might consider perfectly appropriate.
That night, in preparation for the following day of testimony, it was decided that our local counsel, a native Hawaiian, would handle the cross-examination of the next adverse witness. I am told the contrast between the his tone during cross-examination, gentle, less confrontational, like “a knife cutting through heated butter,” and my colleague’s examination the previous day, was palpable. Let me make clear that my colleague’s cross was not over the top at all,† just consistent with how we would take such a witness here in Los Angeles. The difference was simply that the Hawaiian jurors do not appreciate the kind of confrontational tone we might employ when addressing a witness in cross-examination.
This highlights a concern we should always have when litigating, or even transacting any king of business, in a venue that is culturally different from our own. When faced with a trial in a culturally unfamiliar venue, I would always recommend involving local counsel, if only to advise about these kinds of cultural differences.
†In fact, it was not a “temper” or anger issue, at all. The title of this post is probably an unfair misnomer.