A false allegation of child sexual assault can destroy a person’s life quicker and more thoroughly than any other crime of violence, including a sexual assault of an adult. As criminal defense attorneys, we know this to be true because we have represented clients found “not guilty” of such charges. Successful verdicts often cannot put the shattered pieces of the falsely accused life back together. The impact of a false child sexual assault allegation is permanent, as evidenced in the Greg Kelley case recently explored in the Showtime documentary Outcry.
Writing in the August 21, 2020 edition of the Texas Observer, Nick Yeager drew parallels between the Kelly case and the McMartin preschool and Satanic Panic child sexual abuse cases in the 1980s and 1990s—cases that sent scores of innocent people to prison. These and other high profile child sex cases reinforced the entrenched national perception that children never lie about allegations of child sexual abuse and that any such allegation must be true. This frightening reality was evidenced in the San Antonio Four case— involving four Latina women who were convicted of sadistically abusing two young girls and were recently exonerated after 24 years of prison—and the cases against Fran and Dan Keller, who were wrongfully convicted during the same Satanic Panic era and exonerated, also after decades in prison.
Assumptions About Child Testimony Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions
As Yeager noted, as is often the case in wrongful convictions, former Cedar Park Police Chief Sean Mannix insisted in the Kelley case that the young victim knew too much about the human anatomy to have made up the abuse story.
And therein lays the core of the problem: there are no measurable ways to determine when a child is falsely reporting sexual assault. To Chief Mannix, and many others like him in law enforcement, a child’s knowledge of the human anatomy is sufficient probable cause to level a criminal charge.
Canadian child sexual abuse experts Mireille Cyr and Guy Bruneau, however, offer these factors as to why a child may make a false sexual abuse allegation:
- Children are more susceptible than adults to influence, and young children are more susceptible than older ones.
- Interview-related factors such as interrogation style (open, direct, leading, suggestive), the interviewer’s emotional attitude (intimidating, judgmental, supportive), and the child’s understanding of the task at hand can all influence the accuracy of the answers provided by children about events they have experienced.
- As source monitoring of information is poorly developed in young children, any discussion of, or questioning about, sexual abuse… can etch itself into memory… This phenomenon commonly referred to as memory contamination, is difficult to prevent, evaluate, and measure.
Police Questioning Can be Suggestive
The police interview process in the Kelley case was so suggestive, even intimidating that the detective involved may as well as have told the child that it was Greg Kelley who abused him.
Cyr and Bruneau added:
“Once a child discloses and testifies to sexual abuse, social workers, police and prosecutors who received the testimony must determine whether the facts reported are true … observations made about the child during an interview with a police officer or social worker are not reliable for determining whether the child is telling the truth or not. Given the wide range of emotional reactions and behaviours [sic] of sexually abused children and the difficulty of differentiating between the child’s reactions to the alleged abuse and those to the interview process itself, it is highly problematic and speculative to assess the validity of allegations on the basis of the presence of an emotional component.”
In the Kelley case, as in the San Antonio Four and Keller cases, the police and prosecutors accepted child allegations as gospel and focused on the predetermined outcome with tunnel vision. As far as the investigators in these cases were concerned, it was “open and shut” cases of guilt against all the suspects arrested and charged in those cases.
Reforms Needed in Child Sex Abuse Investigations, Prosecutions
During the current public demand for “police reforms,” one area of reform should be how police handle child sexual abuse investigations. These 2012 observations by Cyr and Bruneau should be considered by Texas lawmakers studying the need for changes in this area:
“It is not up to the adult who receives a disclosure of sexual abuse from a child to determine whether the allegations are true or not; it is up to trained socio-legal professionals. Adults with no training in this area should exercise caution when they receive allegations from a child. The best attitude is to listen to the child without interrupting or asking too many direct and specific questions about the nature of the acts committed; this will help to avoid contaminating the child’s memory. In addition, it is important to write down as quickly as possible what the child said and to transmit it to the appropriate authorities by filing a report or complaint with youth protection.
“The question of false allegations by children is a complex one for which we have only partial answers. Although research to date suggests that false allegations are rarely made intentionally and are more often made by adolescents and adults than by children, it is important to always consider that sexual abuse allegations may be untrue. It is also important to bear in mind that children are not always prepared to disclose the abuse.
“In addition, in the absence of a reliable method of lie detection, professionals must adopt rigorous practices and apply proven expertise. Such practices must include a supportive attitude and be adapted to the abilities of child, which vary depending on their age. Only rigorous and painstaking investigations, based on an array of hypotheses and information sources, are likely to reconcile the quest for truth with absolute respect for the child.”
Had investigators in the Kelley, San Antonio Four, and the Keller cases been as concerned for the “quest for truth” as they were about establishing the guilt of the individuals charged in those cases, these horrific injustices would not have occurred. The primary purpose of any law enforcement investigation—and this is especially so in child sexual assault cases—should begin with a respect for the truth premised on the experience that all human beings, regardless of age, lie.
Professional, Unbiased Investigation Can Reduce Wrongful Convictions
The “quest for truth” should begin with a professional, unbiased police investigation, not at the criminal trial. The trial should be reserved for one constitutional purpose—to fulfill the prosecution’s duty to prove its charged case beyond a reasonable doubt. The finder of fact, a judge or jury will ultimately decide that issue. It is not the police or the prosecutor’s job to determine guilt based on their “gut” or a preconceived belief that children never lie about sexual abuse.
This process can fairly and justly work only when both the police and prosecutors place the quest for truth before the assumption of guilt.