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

NCJ Number
Date Published
February 2020
35 pages
This study examined how attorneys establish and attack children's credibility in cases that involve alleged child sexual abuse (CSA), and assessed how attorneys phrased questions for such children, how children responded, and whether questioning practices were sensitive to the developmental level of the child.
The study collected relevant cases prosecuted between 2005 and 2015 in Maricopa County, Arizona. Transcripts were examined of 134 minors (5-17 years old) who testified about alleged child sexual abuse in criminal trials. Most cases involved allegations against a familiar, if not familial, adult. Children commonly alleged repeated abuse. All question-and-answer pairs were coded for whether they assessed three areas of credibility: suggestibility and honesty, plausibility, and consistency. In addition, all question-and-answer pairs were systematically coded for the linguistic form of each attorney question and each child's subsequent response. The data indicate that declarative and indirect yes/no questions produced problematic responses from the child. Also, the issues of consistency or inconsistency dominated courtroom investigations of CSA; issues of suggestive influence, honesty, and plausibility received less attention. Based on the kinds of credibility questions involved, this study suggests that children may not have been sufficiently developmentally mature to answer the questions they were asked. This tactic by a defense attorney may be intended to undermine the child's credibility. Based on its findings, the study advises that researchers should work with prosecuting attorney to develop effective training methods, since little is known about how attorneys prepare to question children in CSA cases. 5 figures, 2 tables, and 36 references
Date Published: February 1, 2020