1

I am aware of this previous related question Alternative to "Isn't it true that...?" when questioning witnesses

The most upvoted answer to that question gave alternative ways of speaking. My question is about why the, "Did you not ..., " and "Is it not true ..." formula came about in the first place and whether it has some specific justification or advantage.


I am currently watching a TV-recorded trial from the USA.

The prosecutor consistently asks questions such as, "Is it not true that on February 14th, you [performed some action]? or "Did you not say that ..."

It seems to me that answering Yes or No to such a question gives the same logical meaning, e.g.

Did you not say that Humpty Dumpty was an egg? Please answer Yes or No.

The answer could be "Yes (you are correct that I did not say that)" or "No (I did not say that)."

Question

Is this form merely traditional or is there some legal or psychological logic that makes the question somehow more effective than the straight versions as, "Did you say that Humpty Dumpty was an egg?"

  • Is this during examination or cross-examination? – Dale M Sep 18 at 21:48
3

While it is hard to say with respect to the exact phrasing and psychology, this is one common way to pose what is called a "leading question" which is usually only allowed in cases of cross-examination or examinations of a hostile witness.

A leading question is a question which clearly suggests an answer.

The reason that leading questions are allowed with witnesses presumed by be hostile to the lawyer asking the question is that it forces the witness to commit to, or to disagree with, an exactly worded proposition. If asked an open ended question, as a lawyer must when questioning a friendly witness in direct examination, a hostile witness might be prone to respond with "weasel words" that are not truly responsive to the fine detail of a point that the lawyer asking the question wants the witness to testify regarding.

"Did you not ..., " and "Is it not true ..." are phrases that turn an assertion of fact that the lawyer wants someone to agree or disagree with into a question.

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  • Is the trick legally binding though? Even if the lawyer does ask "please answer Yes or No," can't the witness still describe what happened in their own words? Even if a judge does direct a witness to answer "Yes or No," can't the witness indicate that they are not certain what the "Yes" and "No" responses would indicate? – grovkin Sep 19 at 1:33
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    A judge wouldn’t instruct a witness to answer “yes or no”; they would instruct the witness to answer the question. – Dale M Sep 19 at 3:52
0

There is a psychological basis for such questions, that people tend to get confused, and do not directly answer "I did not X" or "I did X". The answer "Yes" could be "Yes, I did do it" or it could mean "Yes, it is not the case that I did not do it". This has to do with the linguistic property of presupposition versus literal question. Such questions could be effective when trying to discredit a witness. I have no idea what the legal rules are about such questions, but it is related to the concept of "leading question".

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-2

Apperently (trial) lawyers and prosecutors have the saying "Never ask a question you don't know the answer to". I guess when people ask a question for which they already know the answer it makes most sense to themselves to ask them in the form of "Isn't it true that..?", "Did you not say that..?" or something similar.

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