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A witness takes the stand, and answers a number of questions about the issue in controversy. Then the opposing side gets to "cross" examine him or her.

To what extent is cross examination limited only to subjects brought up in direct examination? Can the cross examiner dig into a bunch of background issues in a witness' past to prove bad character or bias, for instance? Or is there an "intermediate" position whereby cross examination is limited to issues brought up on direct examination, plus certain specific "tangential" issues not brought up previously (e.g. "rape shield laws protect a victim from being asked certain questions).

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  • "Character witness" is the worst type of witness, they prove nothing. – Trish Nov 8 '20 at 23:15
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In the United States, different jurisdictions have different rules about what topics may be addressed in cross examination.

In the federal courts, Fed. R. Evid. 611 generally discourages cross examination on matters not addressed in the direct examination, although it also permits questions on "matters affecting the witness’s credibility."

So if a witness is asked on direct examination only about whether A stopped at the intersection before B crashed into him, the cross examination probably shouldn't go into questions about how severe the injuries were, what the weather conditions were, etc. But the court should allow cross-examination on whether the witness is the plaintiff's sister, or whether the witness was previously convicted of perjury. (Despite the rule, the court has a great deal of latitude as to how to handle these questions, practically speaking.)

In the state courts, the rules may be different. In Ohio, for instance, Rule 611 is roughly identical, except that it generally allows questions on "all relevant matters." So now the questions about the weather and injuries are fair game, along with the questions about the witness's credibility.

In any event, the questions will remain subject to the other rules of evidence, so questions about sexual history might be excluded by the rape shield, and questions about irrelevant matters should be prohibited, as well.

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  • Can the defence call one of the prosecution’s witnesses as one of their own witnesses, to ask them questions about things outside the scope of their cross examination (e.g. your example about asking them about the weather)? – nick012000 Nov 11 '20 at 1:24
  • Yes. That is a very common occurence -- and probably a large part of the reason that many state rules do not impose the same restrictions as the federal rule. – bdb484 Nov 11 '20 at 3:40
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Cross-examination is not limited to matters canvassed in examination in chief

However, testimony under cross-examination is still evidence and is subject to the same admissibility rules as all other evidence.

The most relevant restriction on such evidence is ... relevance. Irrelevant evidence is inadmissible and a cross-examination that isn't in some way linked to the examination in chief seems to be irrelevant. Questions that go to the witness' credibility are probably fine but wandering away from what the witness is actually there to testify about seems off.

Most jurisdictions have restrictions on improper questions such as those in s41(1) of the Evidence Act 1995:

(1) The court must disallow a question put to a witness in cross-examination, or inform the witness that it need not be answered, if the court is of the opinion that the question (referred to as a "disallowable question" )--

(a) is misleading or confusing, or

(b) is unduly annoying, harassing, intimidating, offensive, oppressive, humiliating or repetitive, or

(c) is put to the witness in a manner or tone that is belittling, insulting or otherwise inappropriate, or

(d) has no basis other than a stereotype (for example, a stereotype based on the witness's sex, race, culture, ethnicity, age or mental, intellectual or physical disability).

Indeed, this duty is laid on the court irrespective of if opposing counsel objects or not.

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To what extent is cross examination limited only to subjects brought up in direct examination? Can the cross examiner dig into a bunch of background issues in a witness' past to prove bad character or bias, for instance?

Cross-examination is limited to the scope of direct examination. Credibility is a valid cross-examination topic regardless of the nature of the testimony, but multiple evidence rules limit the scope of tangential credibility testimony independently, regardless of whether the testimony is one direct exam or on cross.

Often judges will allow a party to follow cross-examination questions with direct examination questions from the same witness (sometimes with leading questions if the witness is an adverse party or hostile) especially in a civil case where the witness is not a party, to avoid the inconvenience for the witness of having to testify in two different episodes in the same trial.

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