SEARCH

SEARCH BY CITATION

Keywords:

  • attitudes;
  • child sexual assault;
  • credibility;
  • jury decision-making;
  • victim blame

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

Low conviction rates of child sexual assault (CSA) remain a persistent social problem in Australia. One reason for this may be the impact of attitudes regarding the victims when the evidence is weak. This article examines the effects of victim age on perceptions of credibility and verdict in a CSA case. Eleven electronic focus groups deliberated a fictional CSA case, in which the age of the child was systemically varied between 6 and 15 years. Deliberation transcripts were analysed with NVivo (Version 9, QSR International Pty Ltd., Burlington, MA, USA), from which thematic clusters were derived. Results showed that as the child's age increased, credibility and guilty verdicts decreased. In addition, testimony alone had little impact in influencing the verdict. These findings suggest that in lieu of corroborating evidence, increasing supporting information, such as expert testimony, and providing structured deliberation for the jury may reduce the influence of victim blame, particularly when the child victim is older.

Child sexual assault (CSA) allegations are some of the most difficult to prosecute in court, as there is often insufficient corroborating evidence. As such, conducting fairer trials for victims and those accused of these crimes is a significant concern for the criminal justice system. Consequently, jury attitudes and prejudices of victims and offenders may influence legal decision-making processes (Taylor & Joudo, 2005), as was found in a review of the justice outcomes of adult sexual assault by the Victorian Law Reform Commission (2004, p. 38). These juror perceptions may be particularly influential on verdicts when evidence is weak or non-existent.

Research has indicated that attitudes can influence verdict outcomes (Cutler, Moran, & Narby, 1992). Specifically, a study found that jurors' attitudes accounted for 30% of variance in verdicts when the evidence was ambiguous (Moran, Cutler, & De Lisa, 1994), and while other factors can contribute to verdict outcomes (e.g., the strength of evidence and expert testimony), juror attitudes can still make a significant impact. The focus of this article is to examine factors that might influence this variance in verdicts when evidence is weak. Accordingly, juror attitudes may be an influential factor in determining the credibility of victims in CSA cases.

Credibility and age of the victim

Conceptually, credibility incorporates competence, or the perceived ability to accurately recall an event, and trustworthiness, the perceived ability to tell the truth (McCauley & Parker, 2001; Rogers & Davies, 2007). Child witnesses have typically been judged on their memory and suggestibility (Castelli, Goodman, & Ghetti, 2005; Leippe, Manion, & Romanczyk, 1993), sexual naiveté, and truthfulness (Goodman, Bottoms, Herscovici, & Shaver, 1989) in research studies. Additionally, children over the age of 12 have been regarded like adult rape victims (Klettke & Simonis, 2011) because they are perceived as able to resist an assault (Waterman & Foss-Goodman, 1984) and have better recall ability, but are more capable of lying (Bottoms & Goodman, 1994). Conceivably, verdicts may be influenced by juror perceptions of child witness credibility if older children are seen as more competent but less trustworthy. As such, the way in which jurors perceive child witnesses in these cases, particularly when there is little corroborating evidence available, is still of concern for the justice system today.

Studies investigating perceptions of credibility and child witness age during trial have led to inconsistent results. While a substantial review is not possible here, some studies suggest that younger children tend to be perceived as more credible than older children (Isquith, Levine, & Scheiner, 1993; Rogers & Davies, 2007) while others have found no differences at all (Golding, Sanchez, & Sego, 1999). For example, because of the child's sexual naïveté, younger child witnesses have been identified by jurors as less likely to invent false accusations of sexual victimisation (Goodman et al., 1989). Yet, elsewhere, younger child witnesses have been shown to be more suggestible (Goodman & Reed, 1986) and less capable (Leippe et al., 1993).

Given that in many CSA cases there is often little corroborating evidence, the perceptions of a child's age may influence how jurors make decisions about guilt. For example, when a child is preadolescent, he or she is often perceived as more credible than an adolescent, as was explored by Rogers and Davies (2007) who examined victim credibility, victim responsibility, and the perceived severity of non-consensual touching, and found that a 10-year-old child was perceived as more credible than a 15-year-old.

Conversely, McCauley and Parker (2001) asked university students to read either a simulated robbery or sexual assault trial vignette, but there was no physical evidence presented, and the age of the child victim was either 6 or 13 years old. No differences were found between the younger and older child's credibility, honesty, or verdict, suggesting that juror judgements were not impacted by the age of the child victim. However, research regarding credibility of child witnesses in sexual assault cases has been inconsistent, particularly in relation to perception of age differences. As such, a number of other factors may play a role, such as victim blaming and strength of evidence.

Victim blaming

Research has identified that when there is little corroborating evidence presented in court, a number of beliefs about sexual assault may influence victim blaming in CSA cases (see Cossins, 2008), such as that only physical evidence is indicative of abuse (Calvert & Munsie-Benson, 1999), or children's evidence is generally unreliable (Eastwood & Patton, 2002). That these, and other perceptions, such as children are more suggestible (Goodman & Reed, 1986), and less capable of giving evidence in court because of inferior cognitive abilities (Leippe et al., 1993), or that an older child should have been able to resist (Morrison & Greene, 1992), can still contribute to blaming the victim, is concerning (Hammond, Berry, & Rodriguez, 2011).

‘Blaming the victim’ describes the propensity for individuals to assign some degree of responsibility to a victim for his or her own victimisation, and has been studied extensively in attitudes towards adult rape and sexual violence (Burt, 1980; Klettke & Simonis, 2011). Rape myths, or ‘prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists’ (Hammond et al., 2011, p. 243), have been particularly influential in studies of attitudes towards sexual assault (Taylor, 2007). Given that pre-existing beliefs may influence juror decisions when evidence is weak or ambiguous (Pennington & Hastie, 1992), myths related to rape and blaming the victim may be highly influential, particularly when evidence is difficult to acquire (Hammond et al., 2011). While convictions of alleged child sexual abusers are low, they are even lower in alleged adult sexual assault cases (Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2004). This poses a problem as CSA research has found that older child victims (e.g., 15 years old) are more likely to be perceived like adult rape victims (Duggan et al., 1989; Klettke & Simonis, 2011) and thus are susceptible to similar misconceptions and even greater lack of convictions (Waterman & Foss-Goodman, 1984).

Much research has demonstrated that older children, such as adolescents, are more likely to be perceived as responsible (Rogers & Davies, 2007), more able to resist (Waterman & Foss-Goodman, 1984), and more capable of lying or delaying police reports (Quas, Thompson, & Clark-Stewart, 2005), which is aligned with studies of adult rape victims (Finkelhor, Hotaling, Lewis, & Smith, 1990; Sorensen & Snow, 1991). However, research based on actual victims has indicated that victims usually do not disclose immediately (Smith et al., 2000) and may not resist or cry for help (Taylor, 2007). While some changes have been made to the degree of information the jury receives in rape trials, such as reasons for delayed reporting, these stereotypes still exist within the community and thus are likely to be present in jury deliberations (Bronitt, 1998). Although research has shown that child victims may be viewed as partially to blame for their own assaults (see Davies & Rogers, 2009; Graham, Rogers, & Davies, 2007), perceptions of blame for younger child victims may be quite different to older victims. Given these findings, participants in the current study may exhibit a similar pattern of victim blaming when the child is older (e.g., 15 years old).

Jury deliberation and evidence

Research in jury deliberations has been limited because of restrictions of the Australian legal system. To circumvent this, researchers have typically used mock jurors and extrapolated the findings to juries. However, a significant threat to both construct and ecological validity in mock juror studies is the lack of deliberation (Diamond, 1997; Nunez, McCrea, & Culhane, 2011). A few studies have utilised mock juries to examine various legal constructs (Klettke & Powell, 2011; Weiner, Krauss, & Lieberman, 2011); however, there is still a paucity of this kind of research in jury decision-making literature. In particular, little research has addressed how mock juries engage in deliberations when considering a CSA case.

In addition to perceptions of witness credibility, the strength of evidence presented to the jury has been shown to be one of the main factors in jury deliberations and verdict outcomes (Hans & Vidmar, 1986; Vidmar & Hans, 2007), and has been positively associated with successful convictions in sexual assault cases (Devine, Clayton, Dunford, Seying, & Pryce, 2001; Klettke & Simonis, 2011). For example, Visher (1987) examined post-trial interviews with real jurors and found that the type of evidence presented (e.g., physical or evidence of force) during the trial was particularly influential, and that seven evidence factors and case characteristics, such as use of a weapon and testimony, accounted for 34% of the variance in individual juror judgements. This emphasise the significant impact of evidence on juror judgements and how strongly evidence might affect jury deliberations. Thus, it may be reasonable to expect that in cases in which the evidence is weak, ambiguous, or even lacking, jurors may be more likely to rely on extra-evidentiary factors, such as the attributes and characteristics of victims and defendants.

Aims and Hypotheses

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

The current article is part of a larger study (an unpublished thesis), which aimed to investigate focus groups as mock juries in an electronic environment, and examine group processes and attitudes towards CSA during deliberations across younger and older child victims. This article is exploratory in nature and will focus on the main outcomes that emerged from the influence of participants' beliefs related to perceived victim credibility, victim age, and victim blaming. The impact of evidence on attributions of guilt will also be examined. It is hypothesised that (1) the perceived credibility of each child victim will be dependent on mock jurors' general perceptions of each child's competence and trustworthiness in the scenarios; (2) the testimony of the younger child (e.g., 6 years old) will be believed more than the testimony of the older child (e.g., 15 years old); (3) older children will be more likely to be blamed for the assault than younger children; and (4) jurors' pre-existing beliefs regarding CSA victims will have a greater impact when evidence is weak, particularly when the child is older.

Method

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

Participants

The purposive sample consisted of 34 Australian citizens who were all jury eligible. Relevant data were acquired from 22 females and 12 males, with ages ranging from 20 to 56 years. Additional information regarding children was sought from participants: 17.6% currently work in a child-oriented field, 41.2% has previously worked in a child-oriented field, and 29.4% of respondents has children.

Materials

The sexual assault vignette was adapted from previous studies in which a sexual assault incident is described by a child (Back & Lips, 1998; Maynard & Wiederman, 1997). In the current study, the 420-word scenario described a female child's statement about an alleged sexual assault incident and a ‘not guilty’ statement from the defendant (see Appendix for example). None of the vignettes contained physical evidence, as is often the circumstance in actual cases (Thompson, 1988). Each scenario described the same alleged assault, but the ages of the child and the defendant were systematically varied, as was the relationship between the child and defendant, to produce a total of 12 vignettes. The female child was depicted as 6, 11, or 15 years old. These particular ages were chosen to represent victims who are clearly under the age of consent (6 and 11 years old) and a victim who is 1 year below the legal age. The defendant was depicted as either the child's father or her neighbour. Each group of participants received 1 of the 12 manipulated vignettes to discuss. The effects of defendant type are not discussed in the current article, given the focus on victim credibility and blame, but are part of the first author's unpublished thesis. The effects of the child witness age are across scenarios.

Procedure

The Deakin University Human Research Ethics Committee approved the study prior to data collection. Australia-wide recruitment was conducted electronically via email, social media web sites, and online classifieds. Parenting web sites were one of many that were used for recruitment, but this web site yielded no responses, reducing any potential bias from parents. Potential participants were asked to contact the researcher via email to register their interest. The Plain Language Statement (PLS), which outlined the study aims and procedure, was then sent to interested parties. Following allocation to groups, participants were sent instructions on how to download the secure Internet chat room. When participants accessed the focus group via the hyperlink provided, they were redirected to the PLS and the ‘I do consent’ button. By clicking on this button, participants indicated that they consented to the study.

Focus groups were run through a secure Deakin University chat room, and participants contributed to the deliberations by typing their responses in real time. Each participant surrendered his or her email address to the researcher (which was not visible to other participants) and used a codename to enhance anonymity. Each focus group lasted for an average of 1 h. Because of research time restraints and technical issues, group numbers were not consistent: one group of two, nine groups of three, and one group of five participants.

Group deliberations were conducted in a semi-structured manner. In the current study, participants were presented with the charges of the defendant (i.e., indecent act with a child under the age of 12 (16) years), followed by the vignette. No corroborating or physical evidence was presented. Deliberations were loosely based on a question-trail method (see Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2009) in which direct questions were asked to focus specifically on witness credibility and verdict preferences. To guide discussion, questions such as ‘How responsible do you find the defendant?’ and ‘Do you find the defendant guilty and why?’ were asked to obtain a deeper understanding of verdict preferences. The first author moderated the group by providing technical support or clarification, if required. Following deliberations, participants were provided with an opportunity to debrief and were also given contact details for support agencies.

Data analysis

Group deliberations were electronically transcribed and entered into NVivo (Version 9, QSR International, Melbourne, Vic., Australia). In an iterative process, reading and rereading of each transcript achieved data reduction. The first author organised and coded the dataset based on the method of directed content analysis. This consisted of interpreting deliberation transcripts in a grounded manner to code and identify themes or patterns (Hsieh & Shannon, 2005) in the context of prior CSA and jury deliberation theory. Additional codes that emerged independent of this theory were also developed.

The first author devised a codebook, which described operational definitions of codes that were developed on the basis of the previous literature. For example, the code ‘trustworthiness’ consisted of all participant responses that related to the child's capacity to lie, the assumptions of truthfulness, prior history of false accusations, allegations of lying, and uncertainty of truthfulness. Structured codes were developed and applied to each segment of text (i.e., participant responses), and two independent coders reviewed the transcripts and structured codes to produce high agreement. The intercoder reliability level for the first round of coding indicated only a slight agreement (kappa = 0.057, p > .05). Following this low level of agreement, the codebook was revised and subsequent changes were made. A substantial level of agreement was reached (kappa = 0.79, p < .001) after five iterations.

Once the data had been rechecked for accuracy, frequencies were calculated for each time a code was assigned to a participant and a response, in order to ascertain the most important codes. Pearson's correlations between pairs of identified categories were then analysed to examine code co-occurrences and potential patterns across the dataset, which then produced a cluster analysis in NVivo. The resulting correlations and cluster analysis were developed into visual representations, which provided the grounding for data interpretation in relation to CSA and jury decision-making. The data presented in this article are based on the analysis of perceptions of child victims based on their age and the potential impact of child victim age on verdict outcome. A methodological article addressing the analysis of the simulated group decision-making has been published elsewhere (Tabak, Klettke, & Knight, 2013).

Results and Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

To assess the impact of age on verdict outcomes, a chi-square test of independence was performed between the age of the child (younger vs older) and verdict outcome (see Table 1). The older child ages (11 and 15 years) were collapsed into one category because of insufficient group numbers. The relation between these variables was significant, χ2 (1, N  = 34) = 12.62, p < .01. Mock jurors were more likely to vote ‘guilty’ (75%) than ‘not guilty’ (25%) when deliberating a case involving a younger child (6 years old) and more likely to vote ‘not guilty’ (92.9%) than ‘guilty’ (7.1%) when deliberating a case with an older child (11 or 15 years old).

Table 1. Chi-square: Verdict outcomes by age group of child witness
Child ageGuiltyNot guilty
  1. Note. Continuity correction chi-square statistic based on a 2 × 2 table.

Younger (6 years)155
Expected count9.410.6
Older (11 and 15 years)113
Expected count6.67.4

These preliminary results suggest that mock jurors were more likely to vote ‘guilty’ when the child was younger and ‘not guilty’ when the child was older. Groups were more likely to vote ‘guilty’ when the child witness was 6 years old and more likely to vote ‘not guilty’ when the child was 15 years old, while groups were less likely to reach a unanimous decision when the child was 11 years old (see Table 2). This suggests that other factors might have influenced verdict outcomes in conjunction with the age of the child victim, which was investigated more closely in the qualitative analysis of deliberation transcripts presented below. Additional results regarding the information requested by mock jurors to assist with verdict decision-making are also provided. In order to retain the originality of the data, the spelling and grammar of participants' responses have not been corrected.

Table 2. Mock jury verdicts by specific ages of child victim
Age (years)GuiltyNot guiltySplit
631
1113
153

Perceptions of credibility and victim age

It was hypothesised that the perceived credibility of the child victim would be dependent on mock juror's perceptions of the child's competence and trustworthiness. The sections that follow describe the elements of competence and trustworthiness that emerged from the deliberations.

Competence

The evaluation of the child's competence was based on perceptions of cognitive development, sexual naivety/experience, and knowledge. Mock jurors who commented on the intelligence of a child gave reasons such as the child's propensity to lie: ‘It would be difficult to find a child that hasn't/doesn't lie’, and general intelligence: ‘She can't be said to be overly responsible as she is only 11 however she would still understand general concepts in life’. The child was judged on his/her perceived knowledge of sex and experience, relevant to their age; for example, one participant remarked that older children are more sexually knowledgeable: ‘the 6 year old has no idea what is happening but 15 year olds generally know what sexual things are’. These comments are indicative of victim blaming, in that some mock jurors based their level of belief on the child's propensity to lie, as has been previously reported in other research (Bottoms & Goodman, 1994).

Trustworthiness

Belief in whether the alleged assault occurred was related to perceptions of evidence and trustworthiness of the child witness. For example, one participant stated: ‘Yes, I would find the perpetrator guilty of the offence. The story provided by Jennifer is believable. The story provided by the defendant has many areas that require further questions, such as why did he visit, why would the child make up a story like this?’ The defendant's behaviour, legal factors, and community awareness also contributed to this theme. Some participants expressed ideas that the defendant was guilty because he had broken the law, while others argued for the right to due process, for example, ‘in court you're innocent until proven guilty not the other way round’. Trustworthiness, in this case, was also related to perceptions of the child–defendant relationship (i.e., father/neighbour).

Age of child witness

It was hypothesised that groups would believe a younger child witness more than an older child when physical evidence was weak. In those groups who deliberated a case involving a 6-year-old child, mock jurors stated that they would be more likely to believe a younger child than an older child. For example, one participant remarked: ‘the younger the child, I would assume the child knows less about lying about such a complex situation’, which suggests that the trustworthiness of a young child was influential in deciding whether the assault occurred. This idea seemed to influence the determination of guilt for the defendant (see Table 1). For example, reasons given for guilty verdicts included, ‘the age of the child, the actions of the child after the fact, the language used in the child's statement’, and ‘he is totally guilty, as I don't believe a 6 year old would make it up and a 6 year old would not fantasise about those sorts of things’. Thus, mock jurors seemed to perceive a child of 6 years as less responsible and more vulnerable, trustworthy, and sexually naïve.

In those groups who deliberated a case involving an 11-year-old child, believability was equivalent to a younger or an older child. For example, participants gave reasons such as ‘believed the same amount … though a 15yo would have more push than an 11yo in terms of force in saying No’ and ‘age doesn't seem to matter in this case unless we know a bit more about the child’. These comments suggest that when a child is prepubescent, perceptions of competence and trustworthiness are not straightforward because this age group exhibits attributes of a child and emerging adult (i.e., sexual maturity). Thus, as the effect of age became more ambiguous, evidence and context of assault became more important.

Furthermore, groups were not consistent in their verdicts: one group voted guilty and three groups were split in their decision. However, the most cited reason participants gave for their indecision was lack of evidence, rather than the age of the victim, as evidenced by comments such as ‘I don't believe there is enough information there to convict him beyond reasonable doubt’. Some jurors believed that there would be more certainty in a real trial: ‘based on facts given only so far … guilty. The language used by the child to describe the event, the circumstances presented, but I imagine in a real trial there would be much more evidence to certify that it was the father that was caring for the child at the time etc…’. Importantly, while participants stated that they perceived a child of 11 years just as competent and trustworthy as a younger or older child, their verdict choices were incongruent. Specifically, as the amount of evidence presented in these cases was held constant across conditions, no differences based on evidence should be expected. However, as the age of the child victim rose to 11 years of age, an increased focus on evidence became apparent in participants' discussions.

In those groups who deliberated a case involving a 15-year-old child, the younger child was still more believable, ‘with such graphic testimony I'd think that someone had done these things to her. I don't think a 6 year old would be able to make up such detail, so I'd likely believe her’. The older child victim was perceived as less vulnerable, more likely to lie, more able to resist, and less naïve, supporting previous research (Duggan et al., 1989; Goodman et al., 1989). In addition, these groups were more likely to vote ‘not guilty’, with one group split in their votes, with reasons such as, ‘No. It's really just “he said, she said” and without any other evidence or testimonies, cases like that are impossible to prove either way’. Thus, although mock jurors perceived a child of 15 years as more competent to recall the assault, they also perceived this child as less trustworthy, less vulnerable, more responsible, and more likely to lie. Further, there was an even greater focus on evidence as victim age approached adulthood.

No impact of age

The effects of victim age were analysed across scenarios, so when mock jurors responded to how the age of the child impacted upon the perception of the case, some (35.3%) remarked that it actually had no influence and that it was the evidence presented that determined their perceptions of credibility. For example, participants made comments such as ‘age would not be a factor … it would depend on the evidence’, and ‘I do not believe that the child's age is of great importance, the evidence of the alleged offence and the behaviour of the child after the alleged offence make age immaterial’. This finding is similar to that of other studies that have found no relationship between age and credibility (Ross, Miller, & Moran, 1987; Wells, Turtle, & Luus, 1989), instead highlighting the impact of strength of evidence (Visher, 1987). However, as the ‘lack of evidence’ was held constant across victim age, it became apparent that mock jurors were affected by victim age. It seems that participants were not aware of their perceptions as they did not recognise or acknowledge age to be a factor in their decision-making process, yet their verdict decisions indicated the opposite.

Victim blaming

Related to credibility are victim blaming and the perception of the child's behaviour during and after an alleged assault. Akin to perceptions of adult rape, in this study, participants supported the idea that older children should be able to resist sexual abuse: ‘I just mean the 15 year old obviously is more worldly and intelligent than a 6 year old on this topic, so they are aware of what is happening to them and can make the decision to leave, whereas I don't know if a 6 year old would know that they should run out of the room’. Victim response during an assault can increase jury attribution of responsibility and blame to the victim (Broussard & Wagner, 1988), and while some participants in this study felt that the lack of resistance from the older child suggested some responsibility, research has shown that some children will resist, while others will not, regardless of age (Leclerc, Wortley, & Smallbone, 2010).

The role of evidence in deliberations

It was hypothesised that the pre-existing beliefs of jurors regarding CSA victims would have a greater impact on verdicts when the evidence was weak, particularly when the child was older. The sections that follow describe how jurors perceived the evidence and how these perceptions impacted their perceptions of guilt.

Evidence

It was apparent that the presentation of testimony alone was not sufficient for some groups to render a ‘guilty’ verdict, resulting in a ‘not guilty’ or ‘hung jury’ outcome. For example, some participants referred to the lack of evidence: ‘I couldn't make a decision based on the evidence provided … I have no background/history/medical and psycho analysis etc.’, and ‘I don't believe there is enough information there to convict him beyond reasonable doubt’. Some participants suggested that the evidence presented was too ambiguous to render a ‘guilty’ verdict while others stated that the defendant's behaviour (i.e., initiated the contact and controlled the situation) was a determining factor. Corroborating evidence was a particular concern for many jurors, similar to findings in previous research (Duggan et al., 1989), and this was especially important for the older child condition, and somewhat important in the preadolescent condition.

Testimony

Mock jurors highlighted the inconclusiveness of the defendant's testimony and the level of believability in the child's testimony. For example, participants remarked, ‘if that was all I had I would find it hard to decide … the defendants side doesn't sound very compelling though’, suggesting that the defendant testimony was insufficient to be convincing of either guilt or innocence and thus relied on the child's statement to attribute blame and responsibility. The language, adequacy, and believability of the child's statement were important for evaluating the truthfulness of testimony. Many participants who voted ‘guilty’ referred to the detail of the child's statement ‘the child has gone into extensive detail so you have to ask yourself where would a child get this info from. Based on that I would have to say guilty’.

Additional evidence requested by mock jurors

During discussions, mock jurors requested additional types of evidence, which included historical, forensic, and expert evidence. Many stated that access to the history and background of the child, the defendant, and the child's mother would influence perceptions of witness credibility and the determination of guilt. This evidence would include criminal history, family history, previous trauma, and previous allegations or convictions of CSA. Given that the case presented provided no other supporting evidence, the backgrounds and histories of the child, defendant, and mother were perceived as highly influential in evaluating trustworthiness.

A further type of evidence that participants suggested that would influence their attribution of guilt in the CSA case presented was forensic evidence, such as DNA, medical, and physical evidence. To further understand the case, participants also reported that some type of expert testimony would assist in determining credibility, believability, and guilt. Psychological examinations were reported to be the most useful type of expert evidence. Participants also stated that they would like to see police statements, reports from services such as the Department of Human Services, and educational reports. This suggests that jurors would like a plethora of expert evidence in an effort to fully understand both sides of the case.

Implications

In this study, groups were more likely to perceive a younger child as more credible than an older child, particularly in relation to the older child's perceived lack of resistance and ability to lie. As previously stated, older children are often perceived similar to adult sexual assault victims, which may lead to higher incidences of victim blaming and have serious implications for the outcome of trials. As has been found in previous research (Back & Lips, 1998), finding fault in the child victim's credibility, competence, or trustworthiness as a result of stereotypes, such as lack of resistance or age, can be used by jurors to justify the assault. This is comparable with subscribing to adult rape myths (Burt, 1980), which has been a significant factor in adult sexual assault trials (Hammond et al., 2011). Similar to education campaigns that have targeted adult sexual assault and domestic violence, CSA victim blaming may benefit from sustained education campaigns that target specific populations, such as school children, parents, and the general public. These types of media campaigns may lead to an increased understanding of CSA, which in turn, may reduce the influence of stereotypes and preconceived attitudes.

The findings of this study suggest that lack of evidence in court can be a significant factor in the type of verdict outcome that is achieved (Vidmar & Hans, 2007; Visher, 1987). Supporting evidence for these cases is considerably difficult to obtain, so when a case is based on limited or weak evidence, as in the current study, other factors may help jurors to reach a just outcome. Deliberations may benefit from a structured approach, similar to what has recently been used in New Zealand courts. This structured method, dubbed the ‘question-trail’, provides jurors with a pre-written summary of the case, alongside structured questions relating to the evidence and relevant law. This method, called the ‘jury guide’ is relatively new in Victoria (see Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2009), and it may assist in reducing attribution errors even when there is little corroborating evidence.

Limitations

The small sample size and inconsistent numbers of participants across the groups may have affected the allocation of verdicts. It is noted that because of data collection difficulties (i.e., some groups consisted of less than five participants), the applicability of the results to jury research is reduced. This also limited the ability to conduct quantitative analysis and reduced external validity, which is so often a problem in jury research. In addition, the limited amount of information given in the vignettes, while reflective of some CSA cases, may have biased participants towards the victim. Future research should address these limitations by keeping group numbers consistent and by expanding case information to include witness statements and extended defendant testimony.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

This study has highlighted how individual perceptions of a child witness have the potential to impact groups who deliberate a fictional CSA case. Findings indicated that the credibility of the child witness was based on several factors: age, evidence, and blame. Groups debated the truthfulness and context of the allegation, and focused on the victim and defendant's reported behaviour. Characteristics of the evidence that were important in determining verdicts included the believability and inconclusiveness of the testimony presented, forensic evidence, and expert testimony. The child's age influenced perceptions of trustworthiness, competence, and resistance during the alleged assault. It is also noteworthy that while some participants claimed that age would not affect their verdict decisions, their actual verdict choices showed that the older the child, the fewer the guilty verdicts.

Overall, these results show that while laypersons may believe that they are not affected by extra-legal influences such as perceptions of victim age and behaviour, the resulting verdicts suggest that these factors may impact group decision-making more when medical or corroborating evidence is weak. Lack of evidence may be a significant factor in determining credibility of witnesses and for verdicts. Evidential factors such as witness and expert testimony, physical, and psychological evidence were prominent in decision-making, particularly for ‘not guilty’ verdicts. Thus, when there is weak or little evidence and the child victim is older, ‘not guilty’ verdicts may be more likely.

This study contributes to the literature by providing a thorough description of a decision-making process that may be highly applicable to future jury decision-making research. While there are a number of limitations noted (e.g., group sizes), this study provides an increased understanding of how the Australian public currently perceives child victims of sexual assault and how these perceptions could influence potential jury trials. The study also highlights the apparent disconnect in general negative attitudes towards CSA and low conviction rates, particularly in relation to the age of the child victim. Moreover, as data collection in jury decision-making research is often difficult, this study offers a new method of data collection that may be beneficial to researchers.

Appendix

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References

Vignette

Child's testimony

During her testimony, Jennifer recalled that she had been sitting on the sofa in the living room. She stated that her father (neighbour) walked towards her and sat down on the sofa. She recalled that her father (neighbour) told her that they were going to spend some time together and have some fun. She recollected that her father (neighbour) placed his hand on her leg and began rubbing. Her father (neighbour) told her to ‘lie down on the sofa’ and that he ‘starting rubbing all over with his hands’. Jennifer protested, and she stated that her father (neighbour) became ‘very angry’ and to ‘lie down and be quiet’ and that she would enjoy this game, it would feel good. She stated that he continued stroking her body, and then ‘he took all my clothes off and I was cold’. When Jennifer was naked, she recalled that her father (neighbour) began kissing her body, starting with her face and working his way down to Jennifer's thighs.

Jennifer stated that then her father (neighbour) sat up and asked her to touch the front of his pants. Jennifer said that she ‘started to cry’ and that her father took her hand and put it on his crotch, telling her how good it would feel. Shortly after, her father (neighbour) ‘took off all his clothes’ and made Jennifer sit on top of him while he fondled her buttocks. Her father (neighbour) continued fondling Jennifer's genitals, while she was told to touch his penis. She stated that her father (neighbour) continued to kiss and touch her body, and then made her kiss his penis. Jennifer reported that her father (neighbour) ejaculated while rubbing himself against Jennifer. Jennifer left the room shortly after this happened. She stated that her father (neighbour) brought Jennifer her clothes and told her ‘not to tell mum what had happened and that is was going to be their secret’. Jennifer said that she was in her room when her mother returned and did not mention anything about what had happened that afternoon.

Defendant's testimony

During his testimony, the defendant recalled that Jennifer had been sitting on the sofa in the living room. He stated that he walked towards Jennifer and sat down on the sofa next to her. The defendant recalled that he told Jennifer that they were going to spend some time together and have some fun. The defendant claimed that none of the other accounts actually took place. He claims that the accusations were born out of fantasy and that he would never (father: molest a child, especially his own daughter; neighbour: molest anyone).

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Aims and Hypotheses
  4. Method
  5. Results and Discussion
  6. Conclusion
  7. Appendix
  8. References
  • Back, S., & Lips, H. M. (1998). Child sexual abuse: Victim age, victim gender, and observer gender as factors contributing to attributions of responsibility. Child Abuse & Neglect, 22, 12391252.
  • Bottoms, B. L., & Goodman, G. S. (1994). Perceptions of children's credibility in sexual assault cases. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 24, 702732.
  • Bronitt, S. (1998). The rules of recent complaint: Rape myths and the legal construction of the ‘reasonable’ rape victim. In P. Easteal (Ed.), Balancing the scales: Rape law reform and Australian culture (pp. 4158). Sydney, NSW: The Federation Press.
  • Broussard, S. D., & Wagner, W. G. (1988). Child sexual abuse: Who is to blame? Child Abuse & Neglect, 12, 563569.
  • Burt, M. (1980). Cultural myths and supports for rape. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38, 217230.
  • Calvert, J. F., & Munsie-Benson, M. (1999). Public opinion and knowledge about child sexual assault in a rural community. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 671682.
  • Castelli, P., Goodman, G. S., & Ghetti, S. (2005). Effects of interview style and witness age on perceptions of children's credibility in sexual assault cases. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35, 297319.
  • Cossins, A. (2008). Children, sexual abuse and suggestibility: What laypeople think they know and what the literature tells us. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 15, 153170.
  • Cutler, B. L., Moran, G., & Narby, D. J. (1992). Jury selection in insanity defence cases. Journal of Research in Personality, 26, 165182.
  • Davies, M., & Rogers, P. (2009). Perceptions of blame and credibility toward victims of childhood sexual abuse: Differences across victim age, victim-perpetrator relationship, and respondant gender in a depicted case. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 18, 7892.
  • Devine, D. J., Clayton, L. D., Dunford, B. B., Seying, R., & Pryce, J. (2001). Jury decision making: 45 years of empirical research on deliberating groups. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 7, 622727.
  • Diamond, S. S. (1997). Illuminations and shadows from jury simulations. Law and Human Behavior, 21, 561571.
  • Duggan, L. M., Aubrey, M., Doherty, E., Isquith, P., Levine, M., & Scheiner, J. (1989). The credibility of children as witnesses in a simulated child sexual abuse trial. In S. J. Ceci , D. F. Ross , & M. P. Toglia (Eds.), Perspectives on children's testimony (pp. 7199). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Eastwood, C., & Patton, W. (2002). The experiences of child complainants of sexual abuse in the criminal justice system. Brisbane: Queensland Institute of Technology.
  • Finkelhor, D., Hotaling, G., Lewis, I. A., & Smith, C. (1990). Sexual abuse in a national survey of adult men and women: Prevalence, characteristics and risk factors. Child Abuse & Neglect, 14, 1928.
  • Golding, J. M., Sanchez, R. P., & Sego, S. A. (1999). Brief research report: Age factors affecting the believability of repressed memories of child sexual assault. Law and Human Behavior, 23, 257268.
  • Goodman, G. S., Bottoms, B. L., Herscovici, B. B., & Shaver, R. (1989). Determinants of the child victim's perceived credibility. In S. J. Ceci , D. F. Ross , & M. P. Toglia (Eds.), Perspectives on children's testimony (pp. 122). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Goodman, G. S., & Reed, R. S. (1986). Age differences in eyewitness testimony. Law and Human Behavior, 10, 317332.
  • Graham, L., Rogers, P., & Davies, M. (2007). Attributions in a hypothetical child sexual abuse case: Roles of abuse type, family response and respondant gender. Journal of Family Violence, 22, 733745.
  • Hammond, E. M., Berry, M. A., & Rodriguez, D. N. (2011). The influence of rape myth acceptance, sexual attitudes, and belief in a just world on attributions of responsibility in a date rape scenario. Legal and Criminological Psychology, 16, 242252.
  • Hans, V., & Vidmar, N. (1986). Judging the jury. New York: Plenum.
  • Hsieh, H.-F., & Shannon, S. E. (2005). Three approaches to qualitative content analysis. Qualitative Health Research, 15, 12771288.
  • Isquith, P. K., Levine, M., & Scheiner, J. (1993). Blaming the child: Attribution of responsibility to victims of child sexual abuse. In G. S. Goodman & B. L. Bottoms (Eds.), Child victims, child witnesses: Understanding and improving testimony (pp. 203228). New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Klettke, B., & Powell, M. (2011). The effects of evidence, coherence and credentials on jury decision-making in child sexual abuse trials. Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, 18, 263269.
  • Klettke, B., & Simonis, S. (2011). Attitudes regarding the perceived culpability of adolescent and adult victims of sexual assault. ACSSA Aware, 26, 712.
  • Leclerc, B., Wortley, R., & Smallbone, S. (2010). An exploratory study of victim resistance in child sexual abuse: Offender modus operandi and victim characteristics. Sexual Abuse, 22, 2541.
  • Leippe, M. R., Manion, A. P., & Romanczyk, A. (1993). Discernibility or discrimination?: Understanding jurors' reactions to accurate and inaccurate child and adult eyewitnesses. In G. S. Goodman & B. L. Bottoms (Eds.), Child victims, child witnesses: Understanding and improving testimony (pp. 169201). New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Maynard, C., & Wiederman, M. (1997). Undergraduate's perceptions of child sexual abuse: Effects of age, sex, and gender-role attitudes. Child Abuse & Neglect, 21, 833844.
  • McCauley, M. R., & Parker, J. F. (2001). When will a child be believed? The impact of the child's age and juror gender on children's credibility and verdict in a sexual-abuse case. Child Abuse & Neglect, 25, 523539.
  • Moran, G., Cutler, B. L., & De Lisa, A. (1994). Attitudes toward tort reform, scientific jury selection, and juror bias: Verdict inclinication in criminal and civil trials. Law & Psychology Review, 18, 309328.
  • Morrison, S., & Greene, E. (1992). Juror and expert knowledge of child sexual abuse. Child Abuse & Neglect, 16, 595613.
  • Nunez, N., McCrea, S. M., & Culhane, S. E. (2011). Jury decision making research: Are researchers focusing on the mouse and not the elephant in the room? Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 29, 439451.
  • Pennington, N., & Hastie, R. (1992). Explaining the evidence: Tests of the story model for juror decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62, 189206.
  • Quas, J. A., Thompson, W. C., & Clark-Stewart, K. A. (2005). Do jurors ‘know’ what isn't so about child witnesses? Law and Human Behavior, 29, 425456.
  • Rogers, P., & Davies, M. (2007). Perceptions and perpetrators in a depicted child sexual abuse case. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 22, 566584.
  • Ross, D. F., Miller, B. S., & Moran, P. B. (1987). The child in the eyes of the jury: What's the verdict on jurors' perceptions of the child witness? In S. J. Ceci , M. P. Toglia , & D. F. Ross (Eds.), Children's eyewitness memory (pp. 142154). New York: Springer-Verlag.
  • Smith, D. W., Letourneau, E. J., Saunders, B. E., Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., & Best, C. (2000). Delay in disclosure of childhood rape: Results from a national survey. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24, 273287.
  • Sorensen, T., & Snow, B. (1991). How children tell: The process of disclosure in child sexual abuse. Child Welfare, 70, 315.
  • Tabak, S. J., Klettke, B., & Knight, T. (2013). Simulated jury decision making in online focus groups. Qualitative Research Journal, 13, 102113.
  • Taylor, N. (2007). Juror attitudes and biases in sexual assault cases. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  • Taylor, N., & Joudo, J. (2005). The impact of pre-recorded video and closed circuit television testimony by adult sexual assault complainants on jury decision-making: An experimental study. Research and public policy series no. 68. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
  • Thompson, D. (1988). Reliability and credibility of children as witnesses. Paper presented at the Children as Witnesses Conference, Canberra.
  • Victorian Law Reform Commission (2004). Sexual offences: Final report. Melbourne, Vic.: Victorian Law Reform Commission.
  • Victorian Law Reform Commission (2009). Jury directions: Final Report. Melbourne, Vic.: Victorian Law Reform Commission.
  • Vidmar, N., & Hans, V. P. (2007). American juries: The verdict. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Visher, C. A. (1987). Juror decision making: The importance of evidence. Law and Human Behavior, 11, 117.
  • Waterman, C. K., & Foss-Goodman, D. (1984). Child molesting: Variables relating to attribution of fault to victims, offenders, and nonparticipating parents. The Journal of Sex Research, 20, 329349.
  • Weiner, R. L., Krauss, D. A., & Lieberman, J. D. (2011). Mock jury research: Where do we go from here? Behavioural Sciences and the Law, 29, 467479.
  • Wells, G. L., Turtle, J. W., & Luus, C. A. E. (1989). The perceived credibility of child eyewitnesses: What happens when they use their own words. In S. J. Ceci , D. F. Ross , & M. P. Toglia (Eds.), Perspectives on children's testimony (pp. 2336). New York: Springer-Verlag.