A Reluctant Witness

The language in the official letter from the District Attorney was intractable. “You are hereby ordered to appear in the courtroom of the Honorable…on the 5th day of October, 2004, to give witness in the matter of…” I was not overjoyed. In fact, you might say that I dreaded the ordeal. I would go anyway.
A young woman had sold me a digital piano which was discovered to have been stolen from another music store in a neighboring town. I had surrendered the instrument to the local police and requested that I be named as a victim, so that reimbursement of my costs could be ordered. That had been over a year ago. It was my assumption that I would be asked to describe the transaction and identify the woman and that would be that. It was not.
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The young, inexperienced Assistant DA quietly asked me the appropriate questions and I identified the lady sitting at the defendant’s table as the perpetrator. Then he sat down, apparently relieved to be done with me. The attorney for the defendant wasn’t so inexperienced, nor so gentle in his questioning. As long as he stayed on the matter of my purchase of the piano under discussion, I was in my element and skillfully gave the necessary responses. Then he changed tack. Without warning, he was asking me questions regarding a separate incident of which I had no knowledge. Telling him that I knew nothing of the event in question wasn’t met with a graceful apology, but with another slight shift in direction.
He began to ask me to compare the piano I had purchased with other models which were on a list he produced, evidently the police report regarding other incidents at the music store from which the piano had originally been stolen. I was suddenly, as they say, asea.Having no knowledge of the other keyboards, it became obvious to me that his intent was to confuse the court by having me answer questions that might cast doubt on the fact that any theft had occurred in the first place. When he asked me for the third time if a certain model keyboard, obviously not the one I had purchased, was in fact the same as the one I had, I told him that I had no knowledge of these other keyboards at all. “I can only tell you about the piano I have personal knowledge of. I’m not sure how asking me about these other ones can be helpful to you. They have nothing to do with me.”
Abruptly, he turned to the judge and said, “Your honor, since this witness obviously does not wish to be helpful, I have no further questions for him.” Whew! It was over! Helpful or not, I was relieved to be excused. I stepped down and went back into the room where the other witnesses were waiting. One of the policemen who was also a witness, said, “Boy, he sure thought he was going to get you to make his case for him!” Again, I replied, “I can only give testimony about something of which I have personal knowledge.” We left it at that, but within moments, the judge called us back in for the verdict. The young woman was found guilty and would be sentenced later. I was free to go and was certainly happy to do so.
I have been in any number of informal conversations wherein various events have been discussed. It has been my experience, almost universally, that people who saw an event are forthcoming with their description. They are in their element and almost anxious to tell of the occurrence, because they were there. In those conversations, seldom does anyone who wasn’t present at the event add any details. Oh, there might be a question raised, “I hear that so-and-so did this. Is that right?” That question must be answered by those who saw it happen, since one cannot testify to what he does not know. We cannot give witness to what we did not see. When we do, they call it hearsay, meaning that we have heard an account from someone else and are not qualified ourselves to give testimony.
I wonder if you need for me to ride herd on this roundup much longer. There are obvious applications to be made, the first and most important one being that we can only give witness to events which have happened to us personally. You will certainly have already gathered that concept some while back in this rambling treatise. But, we are called to be free with our testimony, anxiously telling of what we know to be true, leaving out no detail of the event.  Peter, the headstrong apostle, tells us, “Be prepared to give an answer, if anyone asks the reason for the hope which lies within you.” The words are not idle, nor do they leave room for ignoring them. You are a witness to the event; the summons has been delivered; you must appear.
One last observation, which parallels the case I described earlier, and then I’ll quit boring. Stick to the subject! The folks asking the questions will inevitably throw in what could best be described as a “knuckle ball”. This will be the off-speed pitch, designed to move us off our message and to dilute the impact of the truth of our testimony. Don’t be fooled. Give witness to what you know, avoiding the hearsay. When we are drawn to futile arguments, we fall into the trap, guaranteeing failure.
I like the instructions that a good friend of mine used to give to young minds that he was instructing in public speaking. “Tell them what you’re going to say, then say it. After that, tell them what you said. Then, shut-up.”  Good advice.
You’ve been served with your summons. It’s time to take the witness box.
“Any fact is better established by two or three good testimonies, than by a thousand arguments.”
(Marie Dressler~American Actress~1907-1934)
“The way to catch a knuckle ball is to wait until it stops rolling and then pick it up.”
(Bob Uecker~American professional baseball player/comedian)
© Paul Phillips. He’s Taken Leave. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

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