Cross Examination the Lincoln Way

Thursday, March 16, AD 2017

 

I have always loved this scene from Young Mr. Lincoln (1939).  Few things are more enjoyable for a trial attorney than a cross examination that is tearing up the opposition case!  Of course in real life in the video above the prosecutor would be on his feet constantly objecting:  Argumentative!  Assumes facts not in evidence!  Mr. Lincoln is using a document that has not been admitted into evidence!  If Mr. Lincoln is going to testify let him be sworn in! Etc.  Of course this was done at a time when most judges tended to give a great deal of lee-way to counsel in their questioning of witnesses, especially in a frontier court and the jury might assume with frequent objections that the prosecutor was attempting to keep the truth from them and vote not guilty as a result.  In any case it is a great scene.

Adlai Stevenson, who would go on to be Vice-President of the United States, when he was young saw Lincoln in action in cross-examination:

 

I once heard Mr. Lincoln defend a man in Bloomington against a charge of passing counterfeit money. There was a pretty clear case against the accused, but when the chief witness for the people took the stand, he stated that his name was J. Parker Green, and Lincoln reverted to this the moment he rose to cross-examine:

Q: Why J. Parker Green?

Q: What did the J. stand for?

Q: John?

Q: Well, why didn’t the witness call himself John P. Green?

Q: That was his name, wasn’t it?

Q: Well, what was the reason he did not wish to be known by his right name?

Q: Did J. Parker Green have anything to conceal?

Q: [I]f not, why did J. Parker Green part his name in that way?

And so on. Of course the whole examination was farcical, but there was something irresistibly funny in the varying tones and inflections of Mr. Lincoln’s voice as he rang the changes upon the man’s name; and at the recess the very boys in the street took it up as a slogan and shouted “J. Parker Green!” all over the town. Moreover, there was something in Lincoln’s way of intoning his questions which made me suspicious of the witness, and to this day I have never been able to rid my mind of the absurd impression that there was something not quite right about J. Parker Green. It was all nonsense, of course; but the jury must have been affected as I was, for Green was discredited and the defendant went free.

2 Responses to Cross Examination the Lincoln Way

  • He killed him because he could. Cass killed Scrubs because he could. The ultimate power over life and death is procreation upon which even God waits; never homicide.

  • I once appeared for the pursuers in a partnership action. There were allegations that the defender had deceived and imposed on his partners, received secret commissions from the firm’s suppliers and had used the firm’s name to secure his personal borrowings.

    It so happened that his name was Cranstoun. Now, I have a slight knowledge of Scottish armorials and genealogy and, at my request, my instructing solicitors ascertained that he was indeed an impecunious member of the noble Midlothian family of that name.

    “What is your family motto?” I asked him

    “Family motto? I really don’t recall.”

    “Let me help your memory.” [Passing him a copy of Burke, with the page marked]

    The witness read, sullenly enough, “Thou shalt want ere I want.”

    Someone in the public gallery guffawed and that little incident unsettled the witness completely.

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