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In Law & Order, witnesses are frequently asked to read written statements made by third parties. For example, a prosecution witness may be asked to read a section of testimony made during the investigation by a different witness.

Does this actually happen? Can they be compelled to read words that are not their own? If I were a witness, I wouldn't willingly read someone else's words, however innocuous they might be. It seems to me that this could easily be misconstrued by a jury as an endorsement, or in more subtle ways, lend credence to the statement, or change the tone.

Is this something that happens in real life? What would happen if the witness refused to read someone else's words?

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  • I can't imagine it ever happening in reality. In both trials I've been in, the lawyers used the projector to show exhibits.
    – pboss3010
    Nov 28 '18 at 17:52
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In general, no, this is called "Hearsay" evidence which is basically an out of court statement. There are specific incidents, however, that could require someone to testify to statements someone else made. For example, if Alice is testifying against Bob, she is allowed to say "Charlie told me 'Bob shot me' before he died." In this incident, Charlie is unable to be cross-examined (being dead) and thus his statement to Alice can be admissable as Alice is making the accusation against Bob based on the fact that Charlie is indeed dead, and Alice was a witness to Charlie's dying utterance.

She could also make such a statement if it requires to testify against her own interests i.e. Alice says "I broke into Bob's office late at night to rob him and saw 'Kill Charlie' in his day planner on his desk." She would also have to identify the offending day planner and the statement (presuming it still exists), but since she is admitting to committing a crime in and of herself, this is admissible. For a real great lesson to this, check out the movie "My Cousin Vinny" and how the phrase "I shot the Clerk" can mean very different things depending on who says it and why cops will tell you that anything you say "Can and will be used against you in a court of law... ". Because of Hearsay rules, they cannot testify to your profession of innocence, but can testify to statements that make you look guilty, even if you are not guilty.

Often times, if there is a documentation of an event, it could be asked to read a statement made in one piece of evidence (usually the affirmative) that contradicts testimony. This usually comes up in Cross-Examination, where the witness says something that doesn't work with the other side's facts. Alice may be asked to read an affidative of Bob's that contradicts her own statement made in direct, though normally the cross-examining lawyer will enter this into the record by saying a statement of "Please read along while I read out-loud... [conflicting statement]" followed by the question on why the two disagree on a fact in the case. In Law and Order, this is probably cut to Alice reading the statement for drama rather than the more cold read you might find in a court room. Real trial lawyers do not want the witness saying anything other than "Yes" or "No" on cross-examination.

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  • The examples I'm talking about aren't hearsay; they're things like snippets of written testimony (made to the prosecutor, or to the police post-Miranda); or a paragraph from a medical report (that the witness didn't write); or highlighted passages in a book; etc. The last paragraph of your answer seems to cover the situation I'm talking about. Typically, the document in question is already in evidence. Nov 28 '18 at 20:06
  • @JimStewart: Pretty much the bulk of exceptions to Hearsay rules are documents that are in evidence and authenticated. You can find the list of the Hearsay exceptions under U.S. Law on the Wikipedia page. I also forgot testimony of emotional utterances or other expressions that give a witness a sense of the present situation, i.e., Alice testimony that Charlie said "If anything happens to me, tell the police to investigate Bob."
    – hszmv
    Nov 29 '18 at 20:15

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