The Timing of the Defense Opening Statement: Don't Wait Until the Evidence Is in1


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    Research was funded by a General Research Fund award (3404-XO-0038) from the University of Kansas to Lawrence S. Wrightsman.

Requests for reprints should be mailed to Lawrence S. Wrightsnan, Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS 66045.


Defense attorneys often reserve their opening statements until after presentation of evidence by the prosecution, a practice advocated by some experts. The current study, involving 291 subjects, varied the timing of the defense attorney's opening statement so that it preceded the prosecutor's opening statement, immediately followed the prosecutor's opening statement, or was reserved until after the prosecutor's case presentation. The type of opening statement (content vs. noncontent) and the testimony (altered vs. unaltered) were varied for purposes of increasing generalization. Materials were based on an actual case of auto theft and were presented in written form complete with judge's instructions. The results showed that subjects perceived eyewitness testimony, the prosecutor's opening statement, the prosecutor's closing statement, the defense attorney's closing statement, and the effectiveness of the attorneys differently depending on the timing of the opening statement. Each of these items favored the defense more than the prosecution if the defense opening statement was earlier rather than later. These effects did not interact with type of opening statement or the testimony alteration variable. Individual verdicts, when weighted by the subjects' confidence in their verdicts, were also affected by the timing variable with verdicts more favorable to the defense when the defense opening statement was given earlier rather than later. The consistency with which the timing variable affected subjects' impressions suggests that defense attorneys who take their first opportunity to make an opening statement, rather than delay, end up with a stronger case for their client. Possible exceptions to this conclusion are discussed.