10 rules of cross-examination in criminal trials

There are few topics in the law written on as extensively as cross-examination.  Cross-examination is to a lawyer as is the breakaway shot is to the hockey player, the Oscar-winning monologue to the actor, or the entrée to a very good meal.

Cross-examination is the climax of any good lawyer movie, and for good reason.  It is exciting, dramatic, emotional, intense, and at times stunningly brilliant.

cross examination how to lawyer

We all remember Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men after being questioned, cornered, and cajoled by Tom Cruise shout “You can’t handle the truth!”.  Metaphorically it is a scene that every lawyer tries to replicate as they approach to dais, hoping for the moment they break the witness down to tears or emotion that solidifies an acquittal or conviction.  In reality, this rarely happens; however, it does not take away from the effectiveness of a good cross-examination.

Every litigator has their own style and theories on what makes an effective cross-examination, and no one in particular is categorically right or wrong of how that is defined, or what rules must be followed or avoided.   In the end, effectiveness comes down to persuasion, which can be achieved through infinite means and through any individualized style.

Notwithstanding, here are several observations I have made over the years conducting many criminal trials. I hope some of these insights may assist some lawyers in developing the style that they think is most effective for their own particular style.