When a witness jumps naked on you
April 19, 2014
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the colloquial phrase “jumps naked on you,” I would inform you that it is East Texan for “gets out of hand.”
If a witness jumps naked that means he or she has said something off message, has improvised an answer not on the script.
This circumstance is one of things that makes lawyers cringe when they put a witness on the stand. As the old preacher said when he started his sermon, “Right before I stood up to speak, only God and I knew what I was about to say. Now, only God knows.”
I post intermittent pieces about writing tips that have to do with courtroom scenes. The thing about trials is that when witnesses take the stand, all bets are off. The lawyer can prep the witness for hours, do dry-runs about various scenarios that may arise, warn the witness about what will happen if he says one thing and what will happen if he says another.
But all that preparation means nothing until the witness raises his right hand, takes the oath to tell the truth and settles into the witness chair.
You can write these scenes anyway you want. But there are archetypes that re-appear in the real world and in the pages of fiction.
One witness archetype is the pompous bastard. This is the guy who craves to take the stand because he wants to prove to the people in the courtroom that he holds all the answers to the world’s greatest questions. He is often wrong, but seldom in doubt.
“Where were you born, sir?” the opposing attorney asks the Pompous Bastard.
“I was born in Kilgore, Texas, sir. ” He doesn’t stop there. “As a matter of fact, I discovered the East Texas oilfield and have written about my experiences as an entrepreneur and business man in several books that are considered the definitive works on the subjects world-wide.”
“I thought that discovery occurred about twenty years before you were born,” the opposing attorney says, baiting him.
“Humph. That shows how little you know. I’m talking about the second great discovery. Most people are not aware of how instrumental I was in that.”
And so forth.
Another archetype is the bereaved widow. The writer has to decide if he will portray her as the real thing, or as a bad person hiding behind a veil of sympathy.
My favorite archetype is probably the natural born liar. This is the guy who takes the stand with a smirk on his face and promptly contradicts every known fact in the case. He wasn’t drunk. He doesn’t beat his wife. He takes his kids to church every Sunday.
“How old are your kids?” the child support lawyer asks.
“I never was much good with numbers,” he says, the smirk still on his face.
“What did you buy your kids for Christmas this year?”
“I don’t believe in spoiling them like that. It ain’t really Christian. I’m a real Christian, you know.”
And so forth.
Like I said, you can have a lot of fun with the banter back and forth between the lawyers and the witnesses. This is an exercise in the pure use of dialogue to drive the story home.