Children are poor witnesses. Or are they?

In a recent murder case, a 6-year-old girl claimed immediately upon arrival of the ambulance and police to have witnessed her father stabbing her mother (Brackmann, Otgaar, Sauerland, & Jelicic, 2014). Does such an account really reflect what happened and should it be used as evidence in court?

In criminal cases, it is important to decipher whether eyewitness statements are credible or not. Indeed, erroneous eyewitness statements can have severe consequences, such as wrongful imprisonment and waste of resources. The delineation of eyewitness accounts is relevant because such accounts often constitute the only piece of evidence in a police investigation or a trial (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). Technical evidence, such as DNA samples, is frequently absent. Hence, it is vital to know whether witnesses provide an accurate reflection of what happened or whether their statements have been infected by memory distortions, so-called false memories.

Comparing child witnesses to adult witnesses, the knee-jerk response among many legal professionals is that children’s testimonial accuracy is inferior to that of adults (e.g., Brainerd, Reyna, & Ceci, 2008). According to this view, children’s memory functions less optimally than that of adults, making them more prone to memory errors, such as false memories. This default assumption has far-reaching effects on jurisdiction. Specifically, when both an adult and a child provide a report of what purportedly occurred, more weight might be placed on the statement of the adult.

Intriguingly, however, recent evidence shows that under certain circumstances, this assumption is untenable. In recent years, there has been an upsurge in new research on the reliability of children’s testimony (e.g., Brainerd, 2013), revealing that adults, and not children, are sometimes the most susceptible to memory illusions. This developmental pattern has been dubbed developmental reversal

In the current paper, we address the relevance of these new findings to the legal domain. Importantly, we focus on eyewitness testimonies and the possibility that they are infected with faulty recollections. Of course, in the legal arena, other types of evidence might be relevant, such as identification performance. Research indeed shows that there are developmental differences between children’s and adults’ identification performance (Havard, 2013). Discussing these particularities is beyond the scope of this paper.

We therefore start with a short historical overview of early studies on children’s testimony and legal cases involving child witnesses. These early findings led to the conclusion that children’s eyewitness accounts can easily be infected with false memories. Subsequently, we discuss the formation of false memories by demonstrating that depending on certain factors, false memories may increase with age. We describe recent experimentation indicating that even forensically-relevant false memories follow an age-related increase. Finally, we consider the practical value of these new findings. 

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