True Crime trials have captivated audiences worldwide, offering a glimpse into the complex and often mystifying world of the legal system. From the OJ Simpson trial in 1995 to the Alex Murdaugh trial in more recent years, millions of people have tuned in to watch as real lives hang in the balance and real victims await justice.
For viewers with minimal courtroom experience, deciphering the nuances of objections, the introduction of evidence, and witness testimony can be both intriguing and overwhelming.
When you find yourself engrossed in the drama of a True Crime trial, it helps to know the basics of courtroom procedure.
Whether you’ve watched True Crime trials, listened to crime podcasts, or binge-watched documentaries, this introduction will help you navigate the legal labyrinth with confidence.
Imagine a courtroom as a chessboard, where every move is strategic and calculated. Objections are the pieces in this game, used by attorneys to challenge improper questions, evidence, or witness testimonies. Understanding these objections is crucial for decoding the courtroom drama.
Relevance: Objections based on relevance occur when a question or piece of evidence doesn’t pertain to the case at hand. Evidence or Testimony is relevant if it makes a fact of consequence more or less probable than it would be without the evidence.
This objection is simply asserted by stating, “Objection, relevance.”
Hearsay: Not all out of court statements are hearsay. Hearsay objections are made to exclude statements made outside the courtroom that are offered for the truth of the matter asserted. If the statement isn’t being offered for the purpose of the jury believing that the statement is true, then it isn’t hearsay.
For example, if the witness says, “my wife told me someone was breaking into the house,” and it is being offered to prove that someone was in fact breaking into the house, then yes, that is hearsay. However, if the witness says, “I grabbed my gun because my wife told me someone was breaking into the house,” then the wife’s statement isn’t hearsay because it isn’t being offered to prove that someone was breaking into the house, but only as the basis for grabbing the gun.
There are some exceptions to the hearsay rule, (statements made by an opposing party to the case, statements against interest, present sense impressions, excited utterances, and statements made for medical diagnosis or treatment) but we’ll save those for an Advanced True Crime trials video in the future.
This objection asserted by stating, “Objection, hearsay.”
Leading Questions: Attorneys are not allowed to lead any friendly witnesses (meaning that they are there to offer evidence that is beneficial to side asking the questions) during direct examination. Leading questions suggest the answer to the witness and do not really test the memory of the witness and allow the attorney to essentially testify for the witness.
If the question calls for a yes/no answer, then it is probably a leading question. If the question ends with “isn’t that correct?” then it is absolutely a leading question. Open-ended questions usually begin with Who, What, When, Where, Why, or How.
This objection is simply asserted by stating, “Objection, leading.”
Speculation: Witnesses are supposed to testify about facts within their personal knowledge. This objection prevents witnesses from offering opinions, guesses, or speculations about facts or events that they do not have direct knowledge or expertise about.
This one is sometimes difficult to identify because rarely do attorneys ask, “can you please speculate for us?”
If the attorney asks a question like, “why did the Defendant to that?” well that calls for speculation. The witness doesn’t have personal knowledge of the Defendant’s motives and therefore cannot speculate about them. Another sneaky way that attorneys ask witnesses to speculate is by asking the witness why they think something happened.
An objection might be raised: “Objection, Judge, the witness is being asked to speculate.”
Character Evidence: Evidence that suggests a person’s character or trait to prove that they acted in accordance with that character or trait on a particular occasion is generally not admissible.
That means that if the Defendant was previously found by the store owner to have shoplifted multiple times from a store, then that evidence cannot be used to prove that the Defendant shoplifted on the particular occasion that he is presently being prosecuted for.
There are some exceptions which would permit the admission of some character evidence, but we’ll have to cover those in the Advanced True Crime trials video in the future.
This objection asserted by stating, “Objection, this question calls for inadmissible character evidence.”
Understanding True Crime Exhibits
Exhibits form the backbone of any legal case. It includes documents, fingerprints, physical objects, shell casings, and more. When introduced effectively, exhibits can sway opinions and influence verdicts. Here’s what you need to know about the admission of exhibits when watching a True Crime trial:
Direct vs. Circumstantial Evidence: Direct evidence directly proves a fact, such as an eyewitness account. If you saw your child steal a chocolate cupcake from the kitchen and eat it, then that’s direct evidence.
Circumstantial evidence, on the other hand, requires inference to establish a fact. If your child walked in from the kitchen with chocolate icing all over their face, and a cupcake is missing, then that’s circumstantial evidence.
Both types of evidence are permissible in court. When you hear someone say that a case is “purely circumstantial” then that just means that there isn’t an eyewitness account. However, circumstantial evidence is sufficient to obtain a conviction.
Chain of Custody: For physical evidence like weapons or documents, maintaining the chain of custody is critical. Any break in this chain can lead to the evidence being challenged. Attorneys may object if the chain of custody isn’t first established.
Because of the importance of establishing the chain of custody, you’ll likely see witnesses removing the seal on envelopes, boxes, or bags while testifying. They do this in order to prove that the items haven’t been tampered with since being tested or examined.
Authentication: Evidence must be authentic, meaning it is what it purports to be. For example, before a picture of the crime scene can be admitted and shown to the jury, the witness must testify that they were present when the picture was taken, that the picture accurately depicts the scene as it existed, and that the exhibit is a true and accurate copy of the original without any edits, deletions, or alterations.
Interpreting Witness Testimony
Witness testimony is the heart of a trial. Watching witnesses testify can be both compelling yet also infuriating. When you’re watching True Crime trials, you’re seeing evidence just as the jury sees it. Except, you now have an advantage because the actual jury doesn’t get these same instructions prior to the trial. Here are some tips for what to look for when witnesses take the stand:
Credibility: Assessing a witness’s credibility is vital. Factors such as demeanor, consistency, and bias can influence credibility. Credibility is a lot more about gut and intuition than anything. Each juror is going to have their own baseline for credibility, which is why we have 12 jurors. Tell me though, what do YOU look for when you are judging a person’s credibility?
Direct Examination vs. Cross-Examination: Remember, during direct examination of a friendly witness the questions can’t be “leading” but must be open ended. During direct examination, this is where the essential elements of the crime will be established. Only in movies will you see the Defendant take the stand, break down, and confess.
On cross-examination, or simply examination of a hostile witness (meaning that the witness is there to offer evidence that is beneficial to the other side’s case), the questions are allowed to be “leading.” You should expect to hear questions that begin with, “Isn’t it true that…” or “You’d agree with me that…” in order to establish very specific facts in an effort to poke holes in the other side’s theory of the case.
Depending on the Court’s rules, you’ll usually see the witness get passed back and forth between the attorneys for direct and cross examination until they’ve obtained all the information that they need.
Impeachment: If a witness’s credibility is in question, attorneys may attempt to impeach the witness. This can be done by introducing prior inconsistent statements, demonstrating bias, or showing a pattern of untruthfulness.
Even though the witness isn’t on trial, don’t be surprised to hear about that witness’s prior criminal convictions in an effort to impeach that witness’s character.
Refreshing Recollection: Witnesses might use documents or other aids to refresh their memory. You might be surprised to know that they cannot simply take notes up to the witness stand and read from them. Documents can only be used to refresh their memory and then have to be immediately put away before questioning resumes. Attorneys can ask, “Your Honor, may the witness use this document to refresh their recollection?”
However, if that document is admitted as an Exhibit, then the witness can look at it while testify as much as they’d like.
Expert Witnesses: Experts provide specialized knowledge that the average person does not possess. Their testimony can be pivotal, especially when testimony about ballistics, cause of death, and forensics is necessary.
While most witnesses are restricted to testifying to matters within their personal knowledge, expert witnesses are allowed to speculate based on their expert education, training, and experience.
However, the clash usually occurs when the expert’s qualifications aren’t based on proven and established methods. Consider DNA evidence (hard science) versus psychological profiling (soft science).
As you delve into the world of True Crime trials, armed with this newfound knowledge of objections, evidence, and testimony, you’ll find yourself better equipped to follow the courtroom battles unfolding before your eyes.
Remember, every objection, every piece of evidence, and every testimony is a piece of the intricate legal puzzle. By understanding these elements, you can appreciate the artistry and complexity of the legal process, making your true crime experiences all the more enriching.
If you’ve never watched a True Crime trial with a few thousand other enthusiast, then I recommend watching with Scott (aka Recovery Addict) who has the best community for watching these trials together.
So, the next time you tune into a true crime trial, listen to a true crime podcast, or watch a true crime documentary, you’ll do so with a discerning eye and a deeper understanding of the fascinating world of courtroom drama.
–Authored by Matthew L. Harris, Esq.,
Matthew Harris Law, PLLC
1101 Broadway, Lubbock, Texas, 79401-3303
Tel: (806) 702-4852 | Fax: (800) 985-9479