Understanding Cross Examination -Part IV

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By Mr. Bhavya Nain[1]

Image from here
Image from here

The present article is a continuation of the previous articles written on cross examination, which are available here[2], here[3] and here[4].  In the present article, the author would like to discuss the famous cross examination by Socrates of his chief accuser Meletus. Through this famous cross examination we can learn certain important techniques of the art of cross examination. It is a trite fact that we can always learn from previous lessons and examples of others. 

The Famous Trial of Socrates

The philosopher Socrates was put to trial in the Athenian Courts in 399 BC. He was charged on two counts. These were: corrupting the youth; and the impiety (failing to recognize the city gods). The trial was conducted in front of hundreds of the jurymen and a large unsupportive crowd. Generally, in such cases, people used to plead guilty and ask the jury for lesser punishment. However, Socrates even in such adverse circumstances chose to himself do a tactful cross examination of his chief accuser – Meletus and also chose to make vociferous arguments at the trial. The best account of the said cross examination occurs in the Plato’s book called Apology.

The Famous Cross Examination of Meletus

The cross examination by Socrates concentrated on the two issues of him corrupting the youth and committing impiety. In regards to the issue of corrupting the youth, Socrates asked Meletus: who is it who has a good influence on the youth? Meletus replied: The Laws. Socrates then through a series of questions asked Meletus to be more specific. Meletus then replied that the people like the Jurymen, etc. have a good influence on the youth. Then Socrates asked few more intrusive questions in this regard to Meletus. The result of the persistent issue based cross examination was that Meletus was ultimately forced to make absurd statement(s) on oath to the effect that the entire population of the Athens had a positive influence on the youth except for Socrates.  Socrates also got it admitted from Meletus that good generally brings good and evil generally brings evil. Then, Socrates extracted from Meletus that Socrates’ impugned acts were intentional. The combined effect of these last two answers was used by Socrates as a based to put forth a novel oral argument. The argument was: Socrates could not have done the impugned evil because the intentional evil acts bring evil; and till now, no evil has occurred to him.

Further, in relation to the charge of impiety, Socrates through a series of intrusive cross examination questions to Meletus, got it admitted that Socrates was believer in the spirits. Socrates also got it admitted that he was a believer in the demi-gods. The reason why Meletus gave these answers was that it apparently showed a bad image about Socrates. However, Meletus did not realize that if a person who believes in the spirits and/ or the demi-gods generally also do believe in the gods. This was precisely the argument which Socrates made in his subsequent oral arguments.

The Result

Unfortunately, Socrates was punished and sentenced to death by drinking a hemlock-based liquid.

The Lessons which can be Learnt

Firstly, it is the harsh reality that even sometimes a good cross examination may not prevent a conviction. The lawyer must not lose hope and try his best because even if there is conviction it may be overturned by the higher courts solely on the ground of the effective cross examination done earlier.

Secondly, a cross examiner should get certain facts admitted from the witness which may be inconsistent with his previous deposition. This helps in developing contradictions in the prosecution evidence.

Thirdly, a cross examiner should always persist with a series of intrusive questions so that the witness may mistakingly make admissions which are to the benefit of the accused.

Fourthly, a cross examiner should always persist with a series of intrusive questions so that the witness may mistakingly make absurd and/or  unreasonable statements which may discredit the witness.

Fifthly, a cross examiner should use his common sense and logic in his questions to make the prosecution witness look untrustworthy or not credible by his answers. Sometimes this object is achieved and sometimes it may not be achieved. But, the cross examiner should attempt to do so as a general practice in appropriate cases.

Thus, we must learn from Socrates not only philosophy but also the art of cross examination. The author in the forthcoming articles will deal with more issues relating to the topic of cross examination.


[1] Advocate, Supreme Court; and Former Law Clerk-cum-Research Assistant, Supreme Court.

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