A few months ago, the unthinkable happened on a habeas corpus case I am doing in South Georgia. The judge “suggested” that I handle some witnesses on a particular issue by deposition. There were all kinds of good reasons for it. The witnesses were spead out all over the State. I will probably get to explore more information and get more information on the record than I would in Court. The only problem is that I never do depositions. Lucky for me, I know a talented civil appellate lawyer and litigator and fantastic blogger who was kind enough to help me out. In addition, if you are in the same boat I am in, I hope he will help you out also.
Bryan Tyson is the editor of the SCOG Blog, which covers civil cases in the Supreme Court of Georgia. And he is my first guest blogger. The following is his guide to depositions for criminal lawyers, which I shamelessly requested for my own personal use.
Deposition Pointers for Criminal Law Attorneys
The deposition is a normal part of life for civil litigators, but is often a completely foreign world for criminal law practitioners. Knowing some basic tips about depositions can assist criminal law attorneys in representing their clients effectively. Our goal is to provide some tips in four basic areas involving taking or defending a deposition: getting started, what happens during a deposition, making objections, and how to prepare a client for a deposition.
Starting a Deposition
To coin a phrase, if you know where to start, it’s easier to find where you’re going. Starting a deposition if you are taking it can be challenging. Generally, a deposition begins with a statement for the record of the name of the deponent, the way the deposition was noticed, and the logistics of how the deposition will be taken. At least using an opening with these elements will make the other side think you know what you’re doing. An opening may sound like this in a state court proceeding:
This will be the deposition of [DEPONENT] taken pursuant to notice and with the agreement of counsel. The deposition of [DEPONENT], is taken by the [PARTY NAME] on cross-examination for the purpose of discovery and all other purposes authorized by the Civil Practice Act and the Evidence Code. All objections except as to the form of the question or the responsiveness of the answer are reserved until such time as the deposition is used.
The reservation of objections is typical at the outset of a deposition in order to ensure an orderly flow. If there is an objection to hearsay, for example, the deponent generally still answers the question on the record, but if the party taking the deposition attempts to use the deposition later, the court would have to rule on the hearsay objection.
After the initial statement, the next issue typically covered is whether the witness wishes to read and sign his or her deposition. This allows the deponent to review the transcript and make minor corrections prior to the court reporter finalizing the transcript. This is usually phrased in the following fashion, directed to the deponent’s counsel:
Have you discussed reading and signing? or
Does your client wish to read and sign?
The attorney taking the deposition then requests the court reporter swear the witness, and the real work of the deposition begins with questions and answers.
During a Deposition
Deposition questions generally begin with the name and address of the individual for the record. It’s also wise to ask a series of questions to see if the deponent will volunteer any information that could be interesting or relevant. There are plenty of stories of individuals volunteering all kinds of information that could prove useful later in the case. Some examples:
- Whether the individual is under the influence of any medication (if so, it is often wise to suspend the deposition until the individual is no longer under any influences);
- Whether the individual has ever been arrested for or convicted of a crime;
- Whether the individual has any outstanding arrest warrants;
- What type of education or specialized training the individual possesses;
- The individual’s employment history;
- The individual’s family relationships;
- Whether the individual has discussed their deposition or the case with anyone who is not their attorney.
Another very helpful tip during the course of a deposition is to remain quiet after asking a question. Dead air in the room is not reflected in the transcript, and often a deponent will fill the empty space by volunteering more information. Similarly, looking expectantly at the deponent even after they have finished an answer will often motivate them to continue speaking.
Objections are often the most challenging part for an attorney taking or defending a deposition, but for criminal law practitioners, this may be the easiest part. Any objection that would normally be made during a trial is available during a deposition. Therefore, any objections you would typically make at trial can be made on the record during a deposition.
Objections should be stated clearly and on the record after the question is asked but before the deponent answers, including the specific grounds. In most cases, a question should still be answered after the objection is made.
Objections to the form of the question or that a question is leading can often be remedied by simply rephrasing the question. Other objections can be more complicated. For example, a question requesting attorney-client privileged information should result in an objection from the attorney defending the deponent, along with an instruction to the deponent not to answer the question.
On occasion, an attorney will attempt to coach his or her client by strategically objecting to questions. If you notice this occurring during the course of a deposition, it is often best to address the situation by taking a break and discussing it with the other attorney one-on-one. If this fails to solve the problem, deal with it on the record. If that fails to resolve the issue, it may be necessary to suspend the deposition until it can be addressed by the court.
Preparing a Client for a Deposition
The primary goal in preparing a client to handle a deposition is to ensure that he or she does not unnecessarily volunteer information. While a client should answer all questions fully, he or she should try to say as little as possible in answering the questions put to them.
When taking a deposition, many attorneys will try to draw the deponent into a level of comfort by turning the deposition into a conversation. Clients should avoid lowering their guard and freely sharing too much information with the attorney taking the deposition.
Depositions are a useful tool for learning facts about a case. Although depositions may appear intimidating at first, they function as valuable places to learn the necessary facts about a case.