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Courtroom body language: What to look for in a witness

Body language expert Blanca Cobb explores the silent messages of trial witnesses and what they could mean.

The first week of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd wrapped up in Minneapolis. Aside from opening statements, several people have testified in court and there will be more people to testify in the coming weeks. This got us thinking about the silent messages that can be seen in people’s body language when they’re on the stand.

We’re talking about body language that you might see in trial witnesses. Specific gestures to pay attention as people testify. We’re not talking about any specific witness of this past week.

There’s a fascination when witnesses testify in a trial. A part of the fascination is knowing whether someone is telling the truth. And people rely on body language to read witnesses. If you’re going to rely on body language, then it’s important to understand what you’re seeing. And let me start off with there’s no one universal body language sign of deception. Many times, what you’re seeing of signs of stress.

If someone sounds calm, they can still show body language signs that reveals nervousness. For example, someone might push the tongue on the inside of the cheek to relieve stress that they’re feeling. Others might swivel in their chair as a way to release anxiety. Or someone might fiddle with clothing or play with jewelry. What’s significant is noticing what question or what point in their answer is causing the anxiety. This gives you more information then noticing that they’re nervous or anxious.

There’s are body language signs that can undermine a trial witness’ testimony. For example, shrugging their shoulders when they’re testifying. A shoulder shrug is a sign of uncertainty. When you’re testifying unless you say that you’re not sure, you don’t know or don’t remember then your body language shouldn’t negate your message. This opens the witness for further questioning as well as place seeds of doubt in the minds of jurors.

There are body language signs that can be a give-away before a witness says a word. Witnesses can give their thoughts away when they’re listening to the question asked. They might either nod their head in agreement or shake their head in disagreement. The problem comes in if they want to change their initial reaction after completely listening to the entire question asked. This backtracking can give the jury pause.

Hand gestures can be contracting. For example. when someone is feeling confident about their testimony, they might show a hand steeple, which indicates confidence and authority. But, if they’re tapping the tips of their fingers together or sliding their fingers down their hand, then they’re anxiety is coming through.

A witness might say something that can unknowingly undermine their testimony. If they say, “honestly” or “to tell you the truth” or something similar, it’s unnecessary because they’re already under oath. However, it can give the jury pause and perhaps, cause doubt in their minds.

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