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What is a Direct Examination?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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Direct examination is one of the cornerstones of a court trial. During the direct examination, a lawyer has an opportunity to question a witness he or she has called. The goal is to present information which will favor the lawyer's case to the jury. After the direct examination is concluded, the opposition has an opportunity to cross examine the witness. Should the lawyer so choose, he or she may engage in a redirect after the cross examination to highlight important parts of the testimony and minimize potential damage which may have occurred during the cross examination.

When a lawyer calls a witness, he or she does so because the individual has valuable information about the case at hand. For example, in a murder case, the prosecutor would probably call the medical examiner to the stand, to discuss how the victim was killed. Since the jury ideally knows nothing about the case, the story which is revealed during the direct examination is extremely important, as it establishes basic facts about the case which the jury will need to have in order to judge fairly.

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Usually, a lawyer meets with his or her witnesses before they take the stand. The lawyer wants to make sure that the witness understands the sort of questions which will be asked. In addition, if the lawyer plans to use visual aids or introduce evidence during the direct examination, he or she will acquaint the witness with that material. Ideally, the witness should not be surprised on the stand by the lawyer, and the lawyer will not ask a question to which he or she does not know the answer.

During the lawyer's meeting, the lawyer may also recommend a style of dress for the witness, and he or she will usually suggest that the witness go over the facts of the case. If the witness has already made a deposition, a copy of that document will be made available to remind the witness of earlier statements which will be entered into evidence. The idea is to make the witness feel familiar and comfortable.

Once on the stand for direct examination, the witness is gently guided through a series of questions which are planned in such a way that a narrative slowly unfolds. The lawyer tries to keep the story focused and interesting so that the jury will pay attention. While the witness is testifying, the lawyer tries to be as unobtrusive as possible, so that the jury is not distracted. Once the direct examination is complete, the lawyer indicates that the witness may be turned over to the opposition for cross-examination.

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