The demeanor and memory of the witness while testifying are an critical factors for the fact finder, whether judge or jury, to consider. Jury instructions guide the fact finder to consider the witness’s demeanor and memory. For instance, one state’s pattern instruction provides:
You are the sole judges of the credibility of the witness. You are also the sole judges of the value or weight to be given to the testimony of each witness. In considering a witness's testimony, you may consider these things: the opportunity of the witness to observe or know the things they testify about; the ability of the witness to observe accurately; the quality of a witness's memory while testifying; the manner of the witness while testifying; any personal interest that the witness might have in the outcome or the issues; any bias or prejudice that the witness may have shown; the reasonableness of the witness's statements in the context of all of the other evidence; and any other factors that affect your evaluation or belief of a witness or your evaluation of his or her testimony. Washington Pattern Jury Instruction, Civil 1.02 (emphasis added)
It is incumbent upon the cross-examiner to watch the manner of the witness while testifying and note any signs of deception or evasion. Equally important is to pay close attention to how well the witness remembers some facts as opposed to others. Then, in closing argument the cross-examiner can close the circle by pointing out the telltale signs to the jury or judge.
A federal judge’ recent decision in granting a new trial provides a good illustration of how the manner and memory of a witness can influence the fact finder. U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein ordered a new trial after a jury had awarded $21.5 million to James Hausman. Hausman claimed that he suffered seizures after an automatic glass door on the Holland America Line cruise ship struck him in the head. See the video above.
Judge Rothstein held a post-trial hearing after an assistant to Hausman stepped forward and said that Hausman had deleted emails that revealed inconsistencies in Hausman’s account. Judge Rothstein found the assistant’s testimony believable. And, she found that Hausman’s was not credible. Her findings reveal how she weighed Hausman’s manner and memory while testifying in assessing his credibility, as follows:
As a witness, he came across evasive and untrustworthy. He appeared to weigh each answer, not for its truthfulness, but to assess whether it would damage his case. Mr. Hausman also seemed to capitalize on his alleged brain injury when it was convenient for him. He was confused or claimed memory loss when confronted with a question or exhibit that appeared to undermine his claims, yet animated and full of information when his testimony supported his case.”