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Direct Examination Definition
How Is It Conducted?

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Collen Clark Published by Collen Clark

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Lawyers in both civil and criminal trials use direct examination to elicit witnesses' testimonies. The direct examination allows the attorney to present their findings in a favorable light by controlling the order and flow of information. 

From my experience as a lawyer, conducting a direct examination demands specific skills.

Here's everything you need to know about it.

Quick Summary

  • The line of questioning typically varies based on who is putting the witness on the stand.
  • Every lawyer's questions during a civil or criminal trial are based on the story their client is trying to tell.
  • Examination questions during a criminal trial typically use a combination of "who," "what," "where," "when," and "why" to gain information.

What Is Direct Examination?

A judge talking to a witness A direct examination is the initial questioning of a witness to get the witness's words on the alleged crime that caused the trial [1]

There is a lawyer representing the accused party (the person who allegedly committed the crime), and another lawyer for the prosecution, representing "the people" whose law was supposedly broken by the defendant.

The only goal of direct examination is to present evidence that proves each lawyer's case theory. While being questioned by the lawyer during direct examination, witnesses provide information to persuade the jury that what they say is truthful and accurate.

Consequently, the jury should believe and accept what they say as fact.

How Is a Direct Examination Conducted?

A direct examination is conducted by the prosecutor, who will start by asking questions about the witness's background, introducing them as someone with similar personal characteristics to the jurors.

The plaintiffs' or the government's lawyers start their presentation of evidence by examining witnesses. The questions they ask the witnesses are called direct examination, which can lead to direct and circumstantial evidence. 

Witnesses may talk about matters of fact, sometimes including opinions on the subject. They might also be asked to identify documents, pictures, or other items introduced as evidence.

Leading questions are not permissible in most legal circumstances because they nudge the witness toward a particular answer. According to the law, under the rules of evidence, the prosecution may raise objections to questions for many reasons. 

You must have a specific legal reason to object during a court case. The judge will then either sustain or overrule​ the objection. If it is sustained, the lawyer must re-phrase or ask another question. 

However, if it is overruled and the witness answers questions, appealing the judge's ruling after the trial may be possible for objections raised by that lawyer.

Direct Examination vs. Cross-Examination

Judge and lawyer with client in court During a trial, lawyers can direct the questioning of some witnesses and cross-examine others. The type of questioning generally depends on who is putting the witness on the stand. 

For example, if the plaintiff calls a witness (assuming that this person isn't hostile or adverse), then the plaintiff's lawyer will directly examine their own witnesses.

Typically, a direct examination uses who, what, where, when, and why questions to gain information. Asking open-ended questions allows the witness to describe their impressions of an event without restrictions.

Usually, an attorney cannot lead the witness during a direct examination unless extenuating circumstances exist.

"Direct examination and cross-examination both involve questioning expert witnesses in court. The difference between the two is in whose witness is being questioned."
- Dani Alexis Ryskamp, Personal Injury Lawyer

The opportunity to question a witness during cross-examination provides a different challenge for attorneys. Cross-examination happens after the direct examination from the opposing counsel.

The goal is either to get information not brought up during direct questioning or to discredit the expert witnesses entirely.

This means that in addition to preparing for other parts of the trial, you'll need to put in a good amount of time if you want your direct examinations and cross-examinations to be effective. During a trial, attorneys can question some witnesses and cross-examine other witnesses.

Direct Examination Tips

Two lawyers talking to the judge It is essential to begin with, your expert's professional qualifications. How do these credentials prove their status as an expert and help establish the story supporting your court case?

A jury will likely be uninterested in an extensive list of where someone has studied or worked. However, a well-crafted exploration of an individual's credentials can help show a jury how this person is one of the leading experts in their field, qualifying them to testify. 

After the witness is qualified, the direct examination should help guide the judge and jury through the expert's opinions and reasoning in their testimony if there are any weak areas in an expert witness's opinion.

Have your expert summarize their findings at the end of the direct examination. You might also want to use visual aids to help the jury remember the subject's key points and conclusions.

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What Is The Purpose of Direct and Cross-Examination?

The purpose of direct examination is to allow the attorney who called the witness to ask questions so that the witness can testify about what they saw or experienced.

The purpose of cross-examination is either to get information that wasn't brought up during direct questioning or to discredit the witness entirely.

Why Do Lawyers Use Direct and Cross-Examination to Challenge The Other Side?

Lawyers use direct and cross-examination to challenge the other side because they want to fully and fairly represent their clients so that the judge or jury can understand what happened and determine who is responsible.

What Are The Three Types of Examination In Court?

The three types of examination in court include examination in chief, direct examination, and cross-examination.

Who Goes First in Direct Examination?

The person who goes first in a direct examination is the defendant's lawyer, then the plaintiff's lawyer cross-examines. The defendant's case goes the same way as the plaintiff's until the defendant's lawyer tells the court, "Defendant rests."

Are You Facing a Direct Examination in Court?

Preparing well for a trial is crucial to success for both parties. It's vital to understand when it would be more advantageous to use direct examination versus cross-examination, as well as how to handle a witness that may be hostile. 

Contact Schmidt & Clark, LLP for a free consultation with our team of experienced trial lawyers. We will help prepare you for success in the courtroom.