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Direct Examination: Definition, Examples & Criminology

Instructor: Erin Krcatovich

Erin teaches undergraduate and graduate classes in Political Science, Public Policy, and Public Administration and has a PhD in Political Science.

This lesson will discuss direct examination, a procedure within the criminal trial process in the United States. We will define this concept and then offer examples to highlight what is involved in direct examination.

What Happens at Trial?

A criminal trial in the United States is the process by which someone accused of breaking the law has an opportunity to hear the charges brought against them, listen to the testimony of witnesses (and question that testimony), and present witnesses to support his or her own defense. The questioning of witnesses allows the attorneys for both the defense and the prosecution to refine their cases before the jury. There are several important people involved in the criminal trial process:

  • Judge, who monitors the process and ensures that justice is served
  • Jury, a group of people selected at random to represent society and vote on the guilt or innocence of the accused, fairly and impartially
  • Defense, consisting of the accused person and their attorneys; and
  • Prosecution, consisting of attorneys representing the government (which brings the case against the accused).

Briefly, a criminal trial follows this general pattern:

  1. Jurors are summoned and brought to the court for formal questioning about their ability to be impartial, called ''voir dire.''
  2. Motions to present evidence are offered to the judge, who determines what is admissible or inadmissible (i.e. not allowed to be presented at trial).
  3. Opening statements, which are summaries of the case to be presented, are offered by both sides. This lets the jury know what to expect and to listen for in the witness testimony to come.
  4. Direct examination by the prosecution and cross-examination by the defense, discussed below.
  5. Prosecution rests their case.
  6. Defense calls witnesses for direct examination. Prosecution has an opportunity to cross-examine.
  7. Defense rests their case.
  8. Closing statements, which are summaries of the case offered by each side, are given by both the defense and the prosecution.
  9. The judge offers jury instructions. These help the jury understand their responsibilities and clarifies the law if needed.
  10. Jury retires to debate the case in private and later presents their verdict to the court.
  11. If guilty, the accused is sentenced according to the law.

Questioning Witnesses

Direct examination is an important part of the trial process, allowing both sides to bring forward witnesses for questioning. Attorneys will carefully select individuals who have direct knowledge of the case and ask them questions to elicit testimony. For example, a victim who was injured can be called to identify their attacker in court. A woman who observed a robbery can testify that she saw the robber leaving the store with the stolen goods. Police officers are often asked to testify about their investigation, explaining the evidence they found and testifying that it was collected following proper police procedures.

Attorneys have the opportunity to question witnesses. Usually, they guide their own witnesses to offer testimony in their own words. Even though the attorney already knows where the person was on the day of the alleged crime (from pretrial depositions), he will still ask the witness to walk the court through the events of that day, from their perspective as they observed things. Direct examination is this process of an attorney questioning a witness that they have called.

After the attorney asks questions through direct examination, the other side can cross-examine the witness. They often ask pointed questions in order to raise doubts about the witness's truthfulness, determine if they have an ulterior motive behind the testimony, or cannot actually remember events clearly.

Choosing Witnesses

Attorneys do not want witnesses who cannot clearly support their case. Witnesses should have direct knowledge of the case: they observed the events, had contact with the victim or the accused in a way that is relevant to the case, or can attest to the character of the victim or the accused. Attorneys can compel a witness to testify; this is a formal court order requiring that a person come before the court to tell their story. However, you cannot be forced to testify against yourself, under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

A witness who lacks firsthand knowledge of the crime should not testify. To testify about what you have heard from another person, but never observed directly, is called hearsay. Generally, hearsay testimony is not admissible. However, there are some exceptions which allow secondhand testimony to be presented. For example, a person can testify to an ''excited utterance,'' something that was blurted out to them (like confessing a crime to a friend).

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