What is a Cross-Examination?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Cross-examination is an important step in the legal process of many countries. It involves putting questions to a witness brought forward by the opposing side. These questions are designed to probe the reliability of the witness, as well as to uncover additional information about the case at hand. Typically, cross examination is preceded by direct examination, in which the side which calls the witness questions the witness. In some cases, cross-examination can be followed by a process called redirection, in which the witness is questioned again to clarify points brought up in the cross-examination which might be damaging.

A witness takes an oath to tell the truth before giving testimony.
A witness takes an oath to tell the truth before giving testimony.

The process of cross-examination is presumed to be necessary because most witnesses come forward to support one side or the other. In the case of the defense, a witness might omit certain information which the prosecution might find interesting or relevant. A prosecution witness might, likewise, omit information. Cross-examination ensures that the trial is fair, and that all information is truly out on the table.

A witness may be cross-examined to bring forth further information about a case.
A witness may be cross-examined to bring forth further information about a case.

When a witness is questioned, it can seem like an interrogation. Typically, the side which calls the witness leads the witness carefully through a series of questions which may have been reviewed beforehand. The side which has called the witness wants the witness to feel comfortable, and may want to avoid certain topics which could potentially weaken its case. In cross-examination, however, the opposing side may get quite intense and probing, in an attempt to “break” the witness into a startling admission which may change the outcome of the case.

In some countries, a cross-examining lawyer may only bring up things which the witness brought up during the direct examination. For example, if the witness is a forensic examiner and he or she brings up the result of a rape kit in the direct examination, the cross-examining lawyer can ask further questions about the topic. However, if a rape kit is not mentioned, the lawyer may not generally ask about it, unless of course the results have been admitted into evidence.

In other cases, a lawyer may bring up any topics related to the case during cross-examination. Cross-examinations can sometimes reveal very interesting information in this case, since the lawyer does not feel restricted by the previous testimony of the witness. Since witnesses do not often have legal training, they may not always realize that they have admitted until it is too late. This can be rather convenient for the opposing side, since the testimony is admitted into evidence once it is given in court.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


On television shows, the lawyer doing the cross-examination is often painted as the hero. This is because the witness often becomes flustered and blurts out incriminating information.

The cross-examination is designed to intimidate, confuse, and frustrate the witness being questioned. It is the lawyer’s hope that this technique will catch the witness off guard, and as he tries to scramble for appropriate answers, he will let something secret slip.

Other times, the cross-examination lawyer is portrayed as the villain who twists the witness’ words and makes the person on trial look guilty. This is especially effective in cases with little evidence to incriminate the person. Words are the lawyer’s only weapon.


@Comfyshoes- That’s true, but the cross examination of an expert witness, like a medical expert is not so easy to impeach. They usually have very scientific information that is harder to refute.

There is some scientific data that can be up for interpretation, but it is usually in cases that are more circumstantial. For example, if you have a murder case in which the body decomposed so much that the matter of death is inconclusive or if you have a murder case with no body, but you have other forensic evidence.

Sometimes in cases like this you might be able to find an expert witness that can refute the testimony of another expert witness. I do think that if the information is too technical, the jury will probably ignore the cross examination which will be a huge tactical mistake for the attorney performing the cross examination.


@Cardfan27 - You make a good point, but most judges do not let questions that are not pertinent to the trial stand. I feel that cross examinations allow the other side a chance to rebut what was said. If the lawyer is crafty he or she can really catch the witness in a lie and impeach or discredit the witness.

That is really what a lawyer’s job is. They have to defend their client no matter how hated the client is. The best cross examination is when the lawyer can get the witness of the opposing side to contradict themselves.

That is when the lawyer knows that they have achieved a killer cross examination. There really has to be a delicate balance because I think if the cross examination is too aggressive in the beginning, it may turn off the jury and the witness might not be as candid in their response.

It is best to catch the witness by surprise. That is the best way to go.


I have always had mixed emotions concerning cross-examination. On one hand it is a necessity, because that is the only way to make sure that all the appropriate questions are asked so that it is fair to both sides. However, on the other hand I can see that some lawyers through cross-examination can exploit the system and in essence just try and bully people on the stands into not sounding reliable.

Even thought there are laws and courtroom conduct rules in place to prevent badgering of witnesses it is still very easy for a lawyer to intimidate a witness to the point that they will appear unreliable to a jury and that is when it is up to the judge to make sure that the lawyer does not cross the line.

One thing to also keep in mind is that if the lawyer becomes a little rough on the witness during cross-examination the judge has to be careful not to tell the lawyer to back off, otherwise the lawyer may be able to use that in the appeals process and claim that the judge did not allow him or her the opportunity to raise important questions in the case.


@stl156 - I understand your concerns about how a lawyer may use the law to their advantage and just be mean to a witness, but this is simply a part of the trial process.

Because law is based mostly upon judgment people have to take into account a lot of things. Although the lawyer may bully the witness into appearing not very reliable on the witness stand, the lawyer will be seen by everyone in the courtroom as a bully and this includes the jury.

If the lawyer were to badger the witness too much in cross-examination the lawyer could be found in contempt of court by the judge. There are rules in place to keep lawyers from taking advantage of the system too much although sometimes they do not help.


I have been to a courtroom and I have seen very mean lawyers try and discredit witnesses to try and get their client off on a charge. I understand that cross-examination is an integral part of the trial process, but there needs to be restrictions on what kinds of tactics can be used in questioning witnesses.

Like the article said it is sometimes like an interrogation and some witnesses will be very nervous on the stand even though they are totally truthful in what they are saying. A mean lawyer will exploit this to their advantage and make the witness not appear confident in what they are saying to the jury, when in reality the lawyer is just being a bully.


Law is a very interesting area of study. Although some people do not like that lawyers will use tactics such as cross examination, because it can discredit and seem like they are attacking witnesses, it is a very important tactic that is used in order to ensure a fair trial.

Since every witness on the stand is sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, they are bound to make sure they are truthful about everything they say, at least concerning what they are asked. A good lawyer can use this to their advantage if they are questioning their witness and know what not to ask. This is why it is important for the lawyer in cross examination to bring up very important issues and as much grey area as possible for the judge and jury to wonder about. It does not even have to discredit the witness, it just has to bring up good enough questions to make people wonder.

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