‘This incident happened when there were 10 people in the house?’ Exploring a framework to categorize defense attorneys’ plausibility questioning in CSA trials

Suzanne St. George, Emily Denne, Stacia N. Stolzenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

While researchers find that attorneys in CSA trials dedicate substantial time to questioning children about the plausibility of their reports, we know of no study to date that has assessed the types of plausibility issues attorneys raise, the relative frequency of different types, or if attorneys vary their plausibility questioning depending on case characteristics. In the current study we explored these questions. Guided by the story model of jury decision-making, we proposed defense attorneys would raise plausibility issues by (1) highlighting jurors’ misconceptions about CSA dynamics; (2) highlighting confusing or implausible statements made by the child; and (3) offering alternative explanations for events. We conducted a content analysis of the cross-examinations of 134 children aged 5–17 testifying about alleged CSA. We found that attorneys raised all three proposed types of plausibility questioning, and they varied their plausibility questioning somewhat by age, severity, child-defendant relationship, and the number of victims in the case. Attorneys’ preferred strategy was to highlight jurors’ misconceptions about CSA. Prosecutors should address jurors’ misconceptions preemptively in direct examinations of children or through expert testimony. Beyond implications for courtroom practices, our plausibility framework may apply to plausibility concerns raised in other crime types, something researchers should explore.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalPsychology, Crime and Law
DOIs
StateAccepted/In press - 2022
Externally publishedYes

Keywords

  • attorney questioning
  • child sexual abuse
  • content analysis
  • plausibility
  • story model of jury decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Psychology(all)
  • Law

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