Science in the courtroom: A Cornell professor uncovers the facts behind child testimony

I received a postcard in the mail last week notifying me I was called for jury duty.  The prospect seemed an inconvenience. (Where would I find care for my two-year-old son while serving?). But it was also exciting!

I’ve always been interested in the law, and the idea of serving on a jury conjured up a feeling of civic responsibility that felt good.  It was a job I wanted to take seriously, and I immediately began wondering if there was any research I should consider before embarking on this important task.

Unfortunately, there were no trials in my town this week, so I didn’t even have to report to the court. But the notice did bring to mind the work of Cornell Professor Stephen Ceci, an expert in developmental psychology who has conducted ground-breaking research on the testimony of children.

Ceci’s work bridges the gap between research and real-life in a very tangible way: findings from his studies have influenced the way thousands of law enforcement officers, social workers, lawyers, and judges deal with the testimony of children. This is research that makes a tangible difference in the lives of people who often find themselves in difficult situations.

 (An interesting side note: Ceci refuses to be an expert witness for either prosecutors or defenders – a decision that has lent him credibility among judges throughout North America, who often cite his work in their decisions.)

A main topic of Ceci’s work is how children respond when they are questions about sexual abuse. The conventional wisdom says that children delay reporting abuse for years and will initially deny any abuse occurred when asked directly. But after repeated questioning, they gradually begin to tell little bits and pieces about how they were abused. Next, they recant altogether. Only later, when they are in what is perceived to be a psychologically safe situation, do they give a full and elaborate disclosure.

In analyses of dozens of published studies, Ceci and his colleagues separated out the methodologically-sound studies on children’s disclosure from poorly conducted ones. They found in high-quality studies, children did report abuse in full detail when explicitly asked. They also found that when a child is questioned repeatedly, he is likely to relent and say what he thinks the interviewer wants to hear to get out of an uncomfortable situation.

“It’s important for judges to know what science shows, because this set of invalid beliefs animates the whole investigatory process,” Ceci explained. “It motivates investigators and interviewers to pursue reluctant children, who may be reluctant because nothing actually happened.”

In the case U.S. v. Desmond Rouse, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (the court directly beneath the U.S. Supreme Court) established new law on vetting child testimony based almost exclusively on the work of Ceci and his colleagues.

For anyone who works with children involved in the court system, Ceci’s work provides a whole new way to think about their testimony.

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  1. […] our post on Professor Stephen Ceci’s work on child testimony, we thought it would be useful to share a recent lecture Ceci gave to a Psychology 101 class at […]

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