Survivors of sexual violence and domestic abuse who testify often feel understandable fear of facing the abuser/assailant in court and anxiety about recounting their most difficult experiences. They fear that they will be badgered or shamed in the courtroom. Survivors may also feel intimidated by the court process and uncertain about whether they will be able to remember details from the traumatic events.
All these concerns are valid, but there are often good reasons to work through your fear and testify anyway. Here are some reasons: speaking your truth in court can be empowering; testifying may save your life and others’ lives; and testifying makes it more likely that the abuser/assailant will face consequences for his actions. Below are some tips to make testifying easier and less stressful.
Prepare to Testify
Learn about the process. Are you testifying in a deposition, a hearing or a trial? Is this for a civil or criminal case? Each of these situations differ, state laws differ, and judges handle cases in a variety of ways. Get the information you need as early in the process as you can. Ask a sexual assault or domestic violence advocate to educate you about court norms in your area. If you have an attorney, they will have information about your specific case. If it is a criminal case, you may be able to tap into the support and knowledge of a victim/witness advocate through the office of your local prosecutor (district attorney). Keep asking questions until you get the answers you need.
Prepare a written account of the assault/abusive events and keep it somewhere safe. Record the (approximate) date(s), what happened, any evidence that you might have and possible witnesses. If there were too many incidents for you to record them all, start with the most memorable or extreme ones. If you have photographs of injuries, make sure these are stored somewhere other than on your phone so they will not disappear if your phone is stolen or destroyed. If the domestic abuse included daily control and humiliations, record these, too. While sexual incidents can be embarrassing to describe, these may form an important part of your case. Try to write about all the events, and share these notes and images with the prosecutor.
Build a support system. The court process will be much easier if you have people on your side. Seek the support of a therapist, a rape or domestic violence advocate, a trustworthy friend or family member, and/or a virtual or in-person support group. You don’t need a lot of people—but you need key people who will have your back. Make sure someone you trust accompanies you to court.
Cut ties with people who blame you, at least temporarily. For many reasons, people you know may blame you or put pressure on you not to testify. Contact with them may confuse your thinking and put you at risk. Block them, stop visitation (unless it is court-mandated), and do not contact them or allow them to contact you—at least until after the court process. You need to focus on your healing and justice.
Remember that abusers are responsible for their actions. Do not forget that the abuser chose to dominate you, sexually assault you, or hurt you physically. No matter what you did or said, or did not do or say, the abuser could have chosen to act differently. The abuser/assailants are responsible for the consequences of their actions.
Free yourself from guilt about testifying. Domestic abusers commonly press their partners to feel responsible or guilty about the abuse, and about calling the police or testifying. Victims of sexual assault may also feel bad about contributing to another person’s criminal record. Someone who chooses violence should face consequences for that choice. You do not determine the punishment—that is up to the judicial system.
Establish clear boundaries. It is usually best to cut off contact entirely with the person who hurt you—get an order of protection, block phone calls, set up child visitation through apps rather than through texts or phone calls, block the abuser on social media, etc. Maintaining contact puts you at risk of succumbing to control disguised as love.
Report dangerousness. Report to the police if the assailant/abuser has access to weapons, especially firearms, and if the abuser has used a weapon against you, strangled you, threatened to kill you or your children, stalked or sexually assaulted you, controlled you, or physically assaulted your children.
Ask for an interpreter. If you have concerns about your ability to understand the court proceedings or express yourself in English, you have the right to ask for a foreign language interpreter. Try to let the lawyers know about this request in advance.
Discuss your fears in advance. Sometimes abusers tell their lawyers about everything the victim has ever done wrong, such as abusing drugs or alcohol, harshly disciplining a child, lying to the police, failing to pay taxes, etc. Make a list of the matters that worry you and ask your lawyer, “What will happen if they bring this up?” Most of the time, these issues are irrelevant and your lawyer can object if they are raised. Anticipating these possible problems will soothe your worries and will also help your lawyer devise a strategy to handle these concerns.
If you have a victim/witness advocate or a lawyer, be sure to follow their instructions if they differ from those written here.
Dress neatly for court. You do not need to dress in a fancy way or try to look like a lawyer. However, wearing clean and neat clothing communicates to the judge that you take what happens in court seriously.
Be serious. Avoid laughing or saying anything about the case until you are called to the stand. Ask anyone who might be accompanying you to avoid joking around, which people sometimes do when they are nervous.
Speak loudly to the judge or jury. Although the lawyers will be asking you most of the questions, try to look at the judge (or jury, if it is a jury trial) and speak loudly enough for the farthest juror to hear you easily. Even if you usually have a quiet voice, make the extra effort to speak up. The best testimony in the world will be ineffective if people cannot hear you.
Speak slowly and clearly, especially if you have an accent that may be less familiar to some of the people in the court. Enunciate and take your time with your testimony. This will also help you think.
Pause briefly as needed. If you begin to feel anxious, look at a neutral space in the courtroom or at a friend; take a couple of deep breaths and a sip of water. Pause as needed to calm down or gather your thoughts. Brief rests can help you relax and feel more in control.
Take a break. If you need to, you can turn to the judge and request a brief break. Witnesses do this all the time.
Use your own words. Do not try to use technical or legal words. It is much more effective to describe in your own words exactly what happened. For instance, “He grabbed me by the neck and slammed me to the ground” is more vivid and effective than “He assaulted me.”
Tell the truth. Do not measure everything you say, wondering if it will hurt or help the case. Just answer the questions as well as your memory allows. Think of your testimony as a “river of truth” that flows continuously over all the obstacles that the other side might try to create.
If you are not sure or don’t remember, say so. If you do not remember parts of what happened or are not sure, just say so. For instance, “I don’t remember the exact date, but I know it was snowing outside and the kids were on vacation, so I believe it was during their February school break but could also have been a snow day.” Do not make up any "false facts" for any reason.
Do not volunteer information. Most of the time, your lawyer will encourage you to answer only the questions that are posed to you. Avoid providing your own opinions and conclusions and do not repeat what others have told you, unless you are asked about these things.
Correct your mistakes. If you realize that you said something that is incorrect—maybe you confused two incidents, for instance—it is okay to ask to correct something you said earlier. You are human and humans make mistakes.
Do not fall for leading questions. Sometimes the lawyer on the other side will try to get you to say something incorrect by leading you down a tangled path. Pay special attention to questions of this kind. They often start with, “Wouldn’t you agree that….” Feel free to pause and request that the lawyer ask the question in a different way.
Admit to confusion. Sometimes the lawyer on the other side will string together a series of questions or use complicated words to confuse you, or in other ways try to get you to say something inaccurate. It is fine to say, “I don’t understand the question,” as many times as you need to. Or, “I am confused by that question.”
Remember that you are not on trial. Some defense attorneys can be aggressive and try to poke holes in your testimony or make you look less reliable. Focus on the events in question. You can ask the judge if you have to answer a specific question or tell the judge that a question is embarrassing. (The judge may still direct you to answer the question.)
Stay calm and centered. Many people feel nervous and even frightened about testifying in court. This is to be expected. However, try to avoid getting angry or flustered. Take that break if you need to, and take your time.
Most likely, you have information that no one else has. Because your testimony is so important, the court has hundreds of rules in place to protect you while you are in court and also before and after. If anyone tries to intimidate you into not testifying or changing your testimony, be sure to report it right away to the office of the prosecutor (District Attorney), or your victim/witness advocate. If you have specific fears, for instance, that the defendant has threatened to harm you or your family if you testify, be sure to relay these to the court.
It is brave and heroic to speak the truth publicly about a violent crime. Your testimony helps keep you, your family, and your community safe. While you cannot control the outcome of the case, you will know that you did what you could to ensure that justice is served.