Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Shadow of a Doubt: The Clarence Elkins Story

The Child Witness

Most research on the testimony of child eyewitnesses indicates that when they lack the language or experience to describe what has happened to them, they often fall short on accuracy, consistency, and completeness. They may also fear retaliation, and they tend to want to please whoever questions them.

Book cover: The Child Abuse Industry
Book cover: The Child
Abuse Industry

During the 1980s, the credibility of child witnesses slipped when a significant number of supposed victims of child abuse made false allegations, mostly due to coaching. In 1985, wrote Mary Pride in The Child Abuse Industry, as many as one million people were thus falsely accused. Teachers who had made physical contact with minors were questioned, sometimes fired, and even imprisoned. Conferences devoted to child abuse received many papers on the "reality" of satanic ritual abuse, to the point that professionals were claiming that a significant percentage of cases of child abuse were the result of satanic conspiracies. Debate ensued over the accuracy of child eyewitnesses, since children's recollections can be imaginative, pliable, and easily manipulated. Many of the accusations proved to be uncorroborated by any physical evidence.

Dr. Steven Ceci, a child development expert at Cornell University, told reporters for ABC News that children imprint a memory differently from adults. It forms around their knowledge and past experience, so the younger they are, the less accurate. Children 2 or 3 years old are generally the worst, while accuracy on the level of adults begins around age 6. "The main ingredient that drives the memory difference," Ceci stated, "is how much they know about the event before they experience it." At times, research showed, they can even be more accurate than adults, but the trick was to obtain eyewitness information carefully, as leading questions or props can prompt fabrications and false memories. In unskilled hands, a child's memory can be easily altered. "Children often provide what they think you want them to say."

Compared to adults, children prove to be nearly as accurate when shown a perpetrator in a line-up, but only when the perpetrator is actually present and no one has pressured the witness. Comments from police officers will influence them, as they are more suggestible than adults, and they do have trouble talking easily in the presence of someone they believe has harmed them.

At trial, jurors tend to believe child witnesses, especially the younger ones, because they're perceived as guileless and too unsophisticated to fabricate such things as sexual abuse, unless the claims they make are overly fanciful. However, a study of 248 jurors indicated that adult hearsay witnesses who reported what a child told them were viewed as more credible than the children themselves. In addition, in court a child might be more nervous, which is often viewed as a sign of deception, and a child traumatized by violence may also have difficulty with recall.

Brooke faced all of these factors when she became the star witness in Clarence Elkins' trial in May 1999.


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