GPSolo Magazine - September 2005

Dangers of Homicidal Cross-Examination

Some lawyers and judges claim that more cross-examinations are suicidal than homicidal. They mean, of course, that more cross-examinations damage the examiner’s case than hurt the witness. In fact, cross-examinations that fail are homicidal—the victim is the cross-examiner’s own client. The lawyer is the cause of a failed cross-examination, but it always is the client who bears the costs.

Reasons for failure. Cross-examinations fail for a variety of reasons. But one of the most dangerous mistakes a cross-examiner can make is to open the door to evidence that otherwise would not be admitted.

One good example is United States v. Edwards. Edwards was charged with and convicted of possession of a firearm and ammunition by a convicted felon. The government’s case was relatively straightforward. The prosecution offered testimony of two police officers, Glover and Dove.

The officers testified as follows: They were in a marked police car when they saw a group of men loitering in front of a house in a neighborhood in which neighbors had complained about such gatherings. Glover yelled to the group to move on. Edwards walked away, but swore as he did so. The officers drove around the block twice and encountered Edwards both times. Edwards made another comment to the officers, and Dove responded, “What the f*** is your problem?” As Glover was exiting the car, Edwards began to run through an alley, holding his jacket pocket. Dove drove around to the other end of the alley and chased Edwards as he emerged. Edwards pulled a pistol out of his pocket and turned toward Dove, who knocked Edwards to the ground. The officers subdued Edwards.

On cross-examination of Glover, the defense attempted to show that Glover was harassing Edwards and that the officers pursued Edwards in their car because he had used profanity in addressing them. At one point the examination went as follows:

Defense: You decided on that third sighting to stop your car there on Bates Street and confront him; is that right?

Glover: Yes, sir.

* * *

Defense: You and Officer Dove had talked about jacking up this guy who was vulgar and profane with you; isn’t that right?

Glover: No, sir.

Defense: You had talked about, I think maybe we should confront this young man about his profanity; isn’t that right?

Glover: About the profanity, sir, yes.

Defense: So you and Dove had talked about this is what we should do.

Glover: No. If we see him, find out what’s his problem, yes, sir.

The prosecutor informed the court immediately after the cross-examination that he planned to ask Glover certain questions for rehabilitative purposes. The court asked defense counsel whether he had any objections, and defense counsel responded, “I’ll think about it.” The prosecutor then engaged in this redirect examination:

Prosecution: Defense counsel also focused on your pursuit of the defendant when he began running.

Glover: Yes, sir.

Prosecution: Have you pursued other individuals who have run when they’ve seen you?

Glover: Yes.

Defense: I’m going to object on this point on relevance, what he’s done in other cases.

Prosecution: And it’s based on what we raised before.

Court: I understand that, and I am going to overrule the objection.

Prosecution: And why do you—on those other occasions when you’ve pursued individuals, have you recovered weapons and drugs?

Glover: Yes.

Prosecution: Is that true in every case that you followed someone?

Glover: On a foot pursuit, yes.

Prosecution: Okay. And when he ran, did you have any suspicion?

Glover: The way that he was holding his left side of his body, like if he’s holding something from falling out of his jacket or pocket area, the left side.

Prosecution: What did you suspect? Did you have any suspicion about what it might be?

Glover: On foot chases like that, from my prior knowledge, could be. . . .

Defense: I’m going to object.

Defense counsel elaborated at a bench conference following the objection that the prosecutor was attempting to establish that, because the officer had successful foot chases in the past, this must have been such a successful chase. The prosecutor responded that defense counsel had challenged the credibility of Glover, the nature of the encounter between Edwards and Glover, and Glover’s reason for getting out of the car. Urging that defense counsel had challenged Glover’s motive for acting, the prosecutor succeeded in persuading the judge that motive was relevant. The judge invited the defense to submit a limiting instruction, none was offered, and the prosecutor concluded his questioning as follows:

Prosecution: Why were you chasing this man?

Glover: Because he ran off from when I tried to make contact with him, and he was holding his left side inside of his jacket. It was my suspicion that he might have been carrying narcotics. They usually run and they throw drugs or possibly a weapon.

Prosecution: But you don’t know—he could have been carrying nothing; isn’t that correct?

Glover: Yes, sir.

Edwards did not testify, and the defense called no witnesses. The parties stipulated that Edwards had a prior felony conviction and that the pistol had been transported in interstate commerce. The case turned on the credibility of the officers when they described their encounter with Edwards.

The concession. On appeal, Edwards complained about the testimony by Glover concerning other chases. The government conceded that the testimony would not have been admissible had it been offered on direct examination, but argued that Edwards’s counsel rendered the testimony relevant by a cross-examination that impugned the officer’s motive for chasing the defendant.

The court of appeals agreed with the government. It rejected the claim that defense counsel did not imply that Glover had an improper motive for chasing Edwards after he fled, and only suggested the officer had an improper motive for repeatedly circling the block after their first encounter. The court stated that “[w]e do not believe that the cross-examination can be parsed so finely.” The court noted that defense counsel’s closing argument clearly stated the defense theory of the case, which was to attack the officers’ motivation and credibility.

Compounding the problem. Aside from the fact that defense counsel opened the door to the redirect examination, he compounded the problem by failing to accept the trial judge’s invitation to submit a limiting instruction to the jury. The court of appeals rejected the government’s argument that, by failing to offer an instruction, Edwards waived any argument that the evidence was unduly prejudicial and should have been excluded under Federal Rule of Evidence 403.

Conclusion. It is not clear that there was a substantial defense available to Edwards. But, it is clear that the cross-examination opened the door to a kind of character evidence that would never have been in the case otherwise. The case is a reminder that the cross-examiner must always consider whether a particular form of attack will result in making inadmissible evidence admissible. If so, the cross-examiner may be firing at his or her own client more than at the witness.

Stephen A. Saltzburg is the Wallace and Beverley Woodbury University Professor of Law at the George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at .

For More Information About the Criminal Justice Section

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 44 of Criminal Justice, Spring 2005 (20:1).

- For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

- Website:

- Periodicals: Criminal Justice, quarterly magazine; Criminal Justice Newsletter, three times per year; White Collar Crime Newsletter, three times per year (electronic).

- Books and Other Recent Publications: ABA Standards for Criminal Justice; Annual Survey of Supreme Court Decisions; Asset Forfeiture: Practice and Procedure in State and Federal Courts; Child Witness in Criminal Cases; The Criminal Lawyer’s Guide to Immigration Law: Questions and Answers; Fourth Amendment Handbook, 2d ed.; Juvenile Justice Standards, Annotated; The Shadow of Justice (fiction); A Portable Guide to Federal Conspiracy Law: Tactics and Strategies for Criminal and Civil Cases; Practice Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines; Restitution for Crime Victims: A National Strategy; Successive Criminal Prosecutions: The Dual Sovereignty Exception to Double Jeopardy in State and Federal Courts.



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