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What is Direct Examination?

TV shows and movies that take place in a courtroom put a heavy emphasis on closing statements at the end of a trial. The lawyers make their dramatic final pleas and set the case up for a fruitful and satisfying ending for viewers. However, what is rarely shown are the other parts of the trial that make the closing statements possible.

What is Direct Examination?

One of these important parts is direct examination of a witness. Cases are won and lost on excellent or poor direct examination performances. Direct examination is a sequence of open-ended questions by an attorney. They are directed at a witness who has been called to give testimony in the case. The point of direct examination is to show who the witness is and develop the facts in a logical sequence.

Direct examination allows the witness to tell a story. It is up to the attorney to make sure that the story is told in a way that is beneficial to their side of the case. To do this, the attorney needs to do their due diligence and research the witness to make sure that the questions asked tell the story they want to be heard. You do not want to be surprised at trial when a witness offers too much, not enough, or conflicting information.

Who are the Witnesses?

There are several types of witnesses that can be called for direct examination. The main three are eyewitness, character witness, and expert witness. An eyewitness saw something that is relevant to the case. In a personal injury case, they may have seen the accident or even been in the car with either the accused or the injured.

A character witness gives testimony about the character of someone in the trial. These are generally only called for criminal trials or if someone’s reputation is being questioned during a civil trial. The rules of evidence can be tricky to understand as they apply to character witnesses, so it is a good idea to find an attorney who knows how and when to call them.  

An expert witness is someone who has knowledge about something that is not commonly known by the judge or jury. Common examples are:

  • Handwriting
  • Fingerprint
  • Evidence, or
  • Weapons experts at a criminal trial.

For a civil trial, doctors, nurses, and scientists are often called. They provide an opinion that is based on the facts of the case and their relevant background. They draw a conclusion and compare it to what happened in the actual case.

What Are the Rules of Direct Examination?

In California, the rules of direct examination of a witness are found in the California Evidence Code. There are some different rules for questioning expert witnesses, but the types of questions that may be asked are similar.

Leading should not be used during direct examination. These are questions that are suggestive of what answer is wanted in the actual question itself. It may be impossible to exclude all leading questions, but the practice should be used sparingly.

There is a difference between direct examination and cross-examination. Direct examination is done by the attorney that called the witness to court. In contrast, cross-examination is when the opposing side’s lawyer, the one who did not call the witness, gets to ask questions. These questions are more direct, usually resulting in yes or no answers. The purpose is to impeach the witness or make them seem less credible.

Common Direct Examination Questions

Common direct examination questions are generally asked first. The purpose of this is to lay the groundwork to establish who the witness is and why they are relevant to the case. 

The basic questions are usually who, what, where, when, and why issues. Examples of basic questions include:

  • What is your full name?
  • Where do you live?
  • Where do you work?
  • How do you like your job?
  • What is your educational background?
  • How many children do you have?
  •  What is your expertise in this subject? (For expert witnesses)

If it is a jury trial, these questions also help jurors relate to the witness which can be beneficial to the outcome of the case. 

More In-Depth Direct Examination Questions

Once the lawyer has asked the basic questions that allow the witness to present their background, it is common that the lawyer will ask more in-depth questions. These questions often relate to the case directly.

For example, the lawyer may ask the witness where they were on a certain day at a certain time. The lawyer can also ask the witness to describe how they were feeling or what they saw or experienced.

Once the lawyer has completed their questioning, the opposing side will be given a chance to cross-examine. It is here that the lawyer will be able to see if their direct examination techniques hold up or if the opposing counsel is able to poke holes in their witness’s testimony. 


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