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Hypothetical: A witness took an oath to tell the whole truth. The adversarial cross-examiner abruptly cuts off the witness's testimony in the middle of a statement, leaving the train of thought incomplete and possibly leading to a misunderstanding by the jury.

The witness wishes to finish that statement and more. Their objective is to fulfill the "whole truth" portion of their oath. What can the witness do during trial to fix this situation?

Can they appeal to the jury? Raise an objection? Or is the witness at the mercy of the (either side's) lawyers' whims? Does the witness have a right to finish their statement even though the cross-examiner has cut them off?

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    Can't help but think of the following exchange from a political tv-series: A: "Did you tell the truth?" B: "And nothing but the truth." A: "The whole truth?" B: "Don't be absurd!" Apr 11, 2023 at 22:30
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    I've never been passed voir-dire in a courtroom setting, but I did deal with immigration (and immigration lawyers) quite a bit for about a decade (some time ago). The advice I always received was that when answering questions in an official setting is that the truth is extremely important, while the whole truth is mostly to be ignored. The rule I've heard repeated over and over is "don't answer any questions that weren't asked - just truthfully answer whatever questions are put to you - and say nothing else".
    – Flydog57
    Apr 11, 2023 at 23:39
  • @Flydog57 answering truthfully implies a degree of completeness. You can omit facts that aren't relevant to the question, but not those that are.
    – phoog
    Apr 12, 2023 at 7:53
  • If it happened to me I think I'd turn to the judge and ask "Your Honour, may I finish answering the question?" The worst that can happen is that he says "No".
    – nigel222
    Apr 12, 2023 at 8:47
  • @nigel222 In addition, the opposing counsel should object that the witness was not allowed to complete his answer.
    – Wastrel
    Apr 12, 2023 at 14:42

3 Answers 3

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"The whole truth" is part of a formulaic phrase which has been operationalized to mean merely "don't commit perjury."

A witness simply answers the questions asked and is not permitted to go further.

The witness is at the mercy of the lawyer's whims. The witness does not have a right to testify beyond the scope of the question asked.

It is improper for a lawyer to cut off a witness when in the middle of providing an answer to the question asked, but those points are for the other side's lawyer and the judge to raise, not the witness.

If the answer of a witness to the question asked on cross-examination leaves a false impression, it is up to the other side's lawyer to correct that by asking additional redirect examination questions of the witness in our adversary system.

Asking questions that when answered truthfully leave a false impression because the answer presents an incomplete version of the whole story is standard practice in lawyering. This tactic is less effective, however, in jurisdictions like Colorado where judges and juries can also ask their own questions of witnesses once the lawyers are finished asking their questions.

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    @Mattman944 : the problem here is a hypothetical case where the response of the witness is a sentence which is grammatically built up in such a way, that if the last word or the last few words are cut off, then it has the exact opposite meaning. And if the sentence with the end cut off is also grammatically correct, no one would know that it was not what the witness intended to say, except for the witness who is no longer allowed to say anything.
    – vsz
    Apr 12, 2023 at 4:37
  • ...and wholly ineffective in inquisitorial systems, where the main querent is the Judge and not the lawyers of either side.
    – Trish
    Apr 12, 2023 at 7:53
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    @vsz Competent lawyers learn what key witnesses will say before they are on the stand in trial and know when to follow up due to circumstances like this one.
    – ohwilleke
    Apr 12, 2023 at 15:53
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    What should happen if the witness says he saw a ___, using some obscure idiom which sounds similar to a common English word or phrase which means something completely different [e.g. saying someone had the perceptive ability of a bat might mean the person was blind, or that the person had excellent perceptive abilities even in conditions of darkness]. If, while watching the procedings, the witness can tell that an idiom has been misunderstood by all concerned, is there any manner in which the witness can ask the court's indulgence to clarify what was meant?
    – supercat
    Apr 12, 2023 at 16:27
  • Can judges not ask their own questions in most jurisdictions? I can understand not letting the jury ask questions, but my impression is that the judge has a bit more freedom to run their court how they see fit, including asking questions of the witness... Apr 13, 2023 at 19:48
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The defendant in Bronston v. United States, 409 U.S. 352 told a partial truth but not the whole truth, and got away with it. The crucial feature of his testimony is that he only answered part of the question asked, and it was the duty of the opposing lawyer to detect the discrepancy. This gave rise to the "literal truth" standard, which has then been clarified in various ruling such as US v. De Zarn which focus on the entire context of testimony, not just on the absolute truth value of an isolated sentence.

The problem with the concept "the whole truth" is that it is impossible to testify to everything that you know to be true, you can only testify to that which you know to be true and relevant. The form of the question can dictate what is relevant, for example if the question asks "did you see Smith on the night of June 30", then not mentioning anything about June 29 or the morning of June 30 would not be "failing to tell the whole truth", and it would not be perjury if you answered "No" even when you say Smith on the morning of June 30. If the question was more broadly "Have you ever seen Smith", then in those circumstances, "No" would be perjury. In other worth, you are entitled to assume a certain scope of relevance, if not clearly contradicted by the whole of the testimony (which is why you need a lawyer to watch out for your interests).

If, ill-advisedly, you say "No." intending to continue "Well, actually, yes, I did see him on the morning of the 30th", you might get dismissed by the attorney. Before you leave the stand, you can address the court and ask permission to correct your testimony.

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    I think a more relevant situation if asked about whether you were certain you'd seen Mr. Smith on the night of June 30 might be if e.g. you looked at a billboard clock just after you saw him and it read 11:59pm, but you have no idea whether the clock was precisely correct. If the timing of the observation and the identity of the person you saw would both be relevant issues, you could not truthfully say you were certain you saw Mr. Smith on the 30th, but counsel might twist that to imply that you weren't certain you saw Mr Smith.
    – supercat
    Apr 11, 2023 at 22:00
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Court contains two parties. You look dead square at the other counsel and go "HELP!" in whatever way you can signal that.

They write a note.

At appropriate time, they say "Redirect, your honor".

"Go ahead."

And then they ask you to finish your thought.

But no, other than that you don't get to tamper with the court's flow in real time. If you don't feel the story has been told to your satisfaction, you can talk to the friendly counsel off-line and tell them what was missed, and they can recall you to the witness stand.

I suppose in some circumstances, you could file an amicus brief, which is how a 3rd party injects legal input into a proceeding.

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    The amicus brief angle is interesting. But I'm afraid time constraints and limitations may block an amicus curiae from filing by the time witness testimony is being taken at trial. Apr 13, 2023 at 12:36

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