It is probably the most common rookie mistake – the cross-examiner has the witness repeat their direct examination. Question: “On direct examination you told this jury that . . .”
The error is grievous. It violates Irving Younger’s 7th commandment: “Don’t allow the witness to repeat his direct testimony.” Younger’s commandment directs the cross-examiner to focus on accomplishing the goals of cross-examination which are to gain concessions that either bolster the cross-examiner’s case theory or undermine the opposing party’s case theory. If the cross-examiner instead allows or causes the witness to repeat the direct examination which contains things favorable to the opposing party, the examiner is defeating the purposes of cross. Worse than that, the examiner is repeating the information which the jury has already heard and that repetition will make it stick in the jurors’ minds.
Why would a cross-examiner ever have the witness repeat their direct examination? Why is it such a common mistake? The usual cause is poor preparation. Rather than having a well planned cross-examination, the cross-examiner mistakenly believes that it is possible to conduct a successful unscripted cross. Counsel has been taking notes during the direct examination and works off them to conduct the cross-examination. Consequently, the examiner is reacting to what the witness testified to on direct, and thus repeats the direct examination. And, the examiner often does so in the order in which opposing counsel questioned the witness.
The cure that will prevent the cross-examiner from repeating the direct is to remember the core idea of cross-examination: Cross-examination is the cross-examiner’s opportunity to testify. Rarely if ever should cross-examination be done on the fly. It must be scripted to be effective. The examiner should know what the witness will testify to and that the examination will produce the desired responses.
The Two Exceptions
There are two exceptions to the rule that the cross should never repeat the direct. First, in those situations where the witness on direct testifies to information damaging to the other side’s case (such as when the other side it trying to pull the sting that is anticipated to be brought out on cross) or helpful to the cross-examiner’s case, then naturally it may be covered on cross. Second, in the odd case where the witness has been coached and memorized their testimony, the cross-examiner may want the witness to repeat direct. An example happened during the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire trial when defense counsel’s cross revealed that a witness had been coached to give a memorized story by having the witness repeatedly tell her story in identical words during cross.