February 27, 2014 § 3 Comments
The forgetful witness can be the bane of even the most accomplished barrister. Faced with what could prove to be a fatal memory lapse, lawyers twist themselves into proverbial pretzels cajoling, wheedling, leading, suggesting, and — when those ploys don’t work — yelling, at witnesses whose memories somehow have escaped them altogether.
To compound matters, counsel opposite, perhaps stimulated by the scent of blood in the water, pounces shark-like with a confounding flurry of objections, insisting that since the witness says she does not remember, no further questioning on the point should be allowed.
It doesn’t have to be so complicated, however.
Mississippi law has long recognized the right of a witness to have her memory refreshed, and our law has allowed anything to be used to refresh independent recollection. Refreshing recollection is not limited to written documents. As MRE 612 states “If a witness uses a writing, recording or object to refresh his memory for the purposes of testifying …” Or, as a law professor eloquently put it, you can use a pencil or a flower pot, if that will do the job.
Bear in mind that the process of refreshing recollection is intended to restore the witness’s independent recollection of a matter. It is not a process of educating a witness about matters beyond his ken, nor is it a backdoor path to admission of an otherwise inadmissible item. Once the witness’s recollection has been restored, the witness continues her testimony based on her now-restored recollection, independent of the refreshing item.
Here are the proper steps:
- Establish that the witness is unable to recall a particular thing.
- Counsel may then use leading questions to refresh the witness’s memory (e.g., “Ms. Jones, don’t you recall telling me last week about the amount of money you deposited into that account?”) See, e.g., James v. State, 86 So.3d 286 (Miss. App. 2012). Also, whether to allow leading questions is entirely within the trial court’s discretion. Dorrough v. State, 812 So.2d 1077 (Miss. App. 2001).
- If the witness still can not recall, counsel may then show the witness the writing, recording or object, which the witness reads or looks at silently. An example: “Ms. Jones, let me hand you this deposit slip, and ask you to read it to yourself.”
- Now the lawyer asks again if the witness now remembers after looking at the writing.
- If the witness responds that she now recalls independently of the writing, her recollection has been refreshed and she may testify to that independent recollection, ideally not using the writing, recording or object further. I say ideally because there are plenty of reported cases in which a police officer, or deputy, or dispatcher has been allowed to continue to use case reports and notes after having recollection refreshed. See. e.g., King v. State, 615 So.2d 1202 (Miss. 1993).
- If the witness still can not recall after looking at the writing, then the lawyer may have to resort to MRE 803(5), which we will look at in a later post.
MRE 612 requires that the opposing party be provided with a copy of the item if it is used for refreshing memory while testifying, and to cross examine the witness about it, and to have relevant portions admitted into evidence. If, on the other hand, the witness uses an item to refresh before testifying, then it is within the court’s discretion whether counsel opposite should have a copy if the court determines that “… it is necessary in the interests of justice …” Any part of the item or writing that the court orders not to be admitted into evidence is required to be preserved in the record for appeal. The court may make any order it deems necessary to effect the intention of the rule.
The best evidence rule does not apply to writings used to refresh recollection. Hunt v. State, 687 So.2d 1154 (Miss. 1997).
The comments to the rule say that it was intended to end pre-rules confusion between simply refreshing the witness’s independent recollection (MRE 612) and laying the foundation for admission of a recorded recollection as an exception to the hearsay rule (MRE 803(5)). In my experience, that confusion sadly persists despite this rule.
In a nutshell, here is the distinction: (a) Rule 612 instructs us on how to refresh a witness’s present recollection. That is, the witness at the time of trial can testify as to his recollection of what happened, but his recollection needs to be refreshed before he can testify. After looking at the item, the witness’s recollection is restored, enabling him to testify from memory. (b) Rule 803(5) tells us what to do where a witness once had personal knowledge, but now has insufficient recollection to be able to testify, and the witness made an accurate record of his observations when the event was fresh on his mind.
An important caveat: Before you stick something under the witness’s nose to refresh his recollection, be aware of what it is that you are handing to your opponent, because that is what you are doing when you offer it to your client. In a case I tried years ago, a key witness was hazy about details of an important event that would affect the outcome of the case. In an effort to jog her memory, her lawyer asked her whether there was anything that would help her recall the details. She said she could recall if she could look at a sheaf of notes she had left on counsel’s table. Without even glancing at them, the attorney handed them to her, whereupon I demanded to look over the papers. There, in the witness’s own handwriting, were dozens of statements that contradicted her own testimony to that point, flatly contradicted her deposition testimony, and aided us immensely in her impeachment. And it was handed to us by her own attorney.
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Thank you for an insightful post. Witnesses routinely get “stage fright” “forgetting” things that they indeed know and having an admissible path to refresh their recollection serves justice.
I had a witness “forget” his address once and it was relevant with regard to whether service was perfected. A pragmatic judge allowed for the witness to refresh his recollection and chalked it up to courtroom jitters, which it was.