Questioning Child Witnesses
The Jury Expert, No. 25, No. 1, pp. 12-16, 2013
6 Pages Posted: 11 Feb 2013
Date Written: February 11, 2013
Thousands of children testify each year in the United States (Ceci & de Bruyn, 1999). Children testify both as witnesses and victims in a variety of legal settings, including family court, dependency court, civil matters, and, most conspicuously, in criminal cases in which sexual abuse is alleged (Quas & Sumaroka, 2012). In many of these cases, much turns on the testimony of the child and whether jurors perceive it to be credible. Jurors often use heuristics or cues to evaluate credibility, such as facial expressions, eye contact, and the general demeanor of the child (Regan & Baker, 1998). Indeed, the United States Supreme Court held that children must testify in front of the jury, rather than behind screens or through the use of out-of-court statements, precisely because jurors need to view these cues in order to evaluate credibility (see, for e.g., Coy vs. Iowa, 1988).
Unfortunately, these expectations are not reflective of the actual way in which children testify. For instance, studies indicate that jurors expect sexually abused children to cry and exhibit negative emotion when testifying about alleged abuse, and jurors tend to disbelieve child witnesses who do not emote in this way (Myers et al., 1999). But research indicates that children commonly do not cry or express negative emotions when describing sexual abuse (Sayfan et al., 2008), and there are a number logical of reasons for their unanimated testimony in general. For instance, children are often interviewed multiple times regarding the incident before testifying in court, or they may simply not have perceived the event as negative. What’s more, the emotion expressed by testifying children could be an artifact of the courtroom experience - i.e., being questioned by unfamiliar and potentially hostile attorneys - and have little to do with the alleged incident itself (Hill & Hill, 1987).
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