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Preparing Witnesses For Trial: A Beginner’s Guide

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This post was co-authored by Barbara Bavis and Robert Brammer, Legal Reference Specialists.

When discussing the use of witnesses at trial, attention often focuses on the use of witnesses in criminal actions, such as how eyewitness identifications are made or whether improper behavior, like witness tampering, has affected the outcome of a trial. However, witnesses are a critical part of both civil and criminal trials, and they can be essential to proving your case and challenging the claims of your opponent.

To be able to utilize witnesses in a way that best helps your case, you must not only understand the procedural rules regarding who can testify and what they can testify about, but you must also make sure that the witnesses themselves are ready for court. The goal of this Beginner’s Guide is to provide you with the resources you need to prepare and examine a witness, and thus, ensure that the witnesses you call add value to your case.

Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.
“Trial of George Jacobs of Salem for witchcraft, Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.” courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress


As with many of our Beginner’s Guides, we suggest that those who are new to the experience of subpoenaing and examining witnesses first turn to a secondary resource, such as a treatise or a legal encyclopedia, to get a grounding in what witnesses are and what they can do.  Below, please find a listing of some helpful legal treatises in the area:

Preparing Your Witness

Expert Witnesses

To find these treatises, or other related resources,  in a library near you, we suggest using the WorldCat Catalog.  When you select a resource from your search results list in WorldCat, scroll down to the “Find a copy in my library” section, enter your zip code (or, if outside the United States, your city and country), and WorldCat will list the closest libraries to you that own that resource.  You can then click on the library’s name to be taken to the resource’s entry in that library’s catalog.

Rules of Court

After using these secondary sources to get an overview of  what witnesses can do and how they can be utilized, you will want to consult the rules of court for your jurisdiction to determine how you must subpoena a witness, which disclosures must be made, etc. The rules of evidence for your jurisdiction will be important in determining the scope and method of how you may examine your witnesses and those presented by your opposing counsel.

Preparing and examining witnesses is a challenging, but essential hurdle that must be surmounted in order to successfully present your case. We hope this guide has proven helpful. If you have any questions, please contact us through our Ask A Librarian Service.

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