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Children Allegations of Sexual Abuse in Criminal Trials: Assessing Defense Attacks on Credibility and Identifying Effective Prosecution Methods

Award Information

Award #
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Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2016, $149,857)

Child maltreatment is widely recognized as a severe crisis in the United States (Norman, Byambaa, Butchart, Scott, & Vos, 2012), incurring costs of $124 billion annually (Fang, Brown, Florence, & Mercy, 2012). Accordingly, children in the United States are frequently called to testify in criminal proceedings about their allegations (Hamblen & Levine, 1997). To effectively develop procedures that better distinguish true from false allegations, one must be equally concerned about false convictions and false acquittals; assessing best practices that minimize children’s vulnerabilities and maximize competencies. To do so, the justice system must assess whether children are credible. As such, is necessary for the prosecutor to establish children’s credibility, particularly by preempting or rebuffing concerns from the defense. Further, it is necessary for the defense to evaluate whether children’s allegations are honest or suggestively influenced, productive, consistent and plausible. However, it is undetermined how to do this effectively. The purpose of the present investigation is to assess how children’s credibility is established and questioned in courtroom investigations of sexual abuse allegations, with a particular focus on how children respond. To do so, the proposed investigation will examine 120 anonymized, archived, court testimonies of 5- 12-year-olds testifying about alleged sexual abuse in Maricopa County from 2006-2016. A comprehensive coding guide will be developed and applied systematically to all trial transcripts. All question-answer pairs will be reliably assessed for whether they contain specific content, assessing whether areas of credibility (suggestibility or honest, productivity, consistent, plausibility) are discussed. It is expected that: 1) defense attorneys will use likely use subtle means to attack children’s honesty and suggestibility, whereas prosecutors will ask overtly about such topics, 2) children will exhibit productivity differences depending on the questioner, 3) defense attorneys will frequently ask children specific questions about prior inconsistencies, 4) prosecutors will infrequently establish the plausibility of abuse, 5) prosecutors will infrequently preempt defense attorneys’ concerns of credibility, and will only sometimes rebuff their attacks during re-direct examination, 6) both prosecutors and defense attorneys may ask developmentally inappropriate questions, and that 7) case characteristics will be related to questioning patterns. The proposed investigation will: develop an understanding of current prosecution and defense methods in cases involving allegations of child sexual abuse,contribute to prosecutors’ abilities to effectively try such cases, providing concrete recommendations for defense attorneys when assessing children’s credibility, and facilitate better decision making in cases of alleged child sexual abuse. ca/ncf
Date Created: September 15, 2016