The forensic interview in a child molestation case is often a central piece of evidence at the criminal jury trial. How a criminal defense attorney handles the forensic interview can mean the difference between a severe mandatory minimum sentence and a full acquittal and vindication.
Most child molestation cases begin with what is called an outcry or initial disclosure by the alleged child victim. After the outcry, law enforcement is usually contacted and an investigation begins. As a general rule, law enforcement officers are trained not to interview the alleged child victim. Instead, the child is taken to be interviewed by an expert employed by the county or state that specializes in child forensic interviews.
There are many reasons why law enforcement uses an expert to conduct an interview of a child. It is well understood that children may be easily led and influenced and that children often lack the cognitive and verbal skills to adequately articulate what has occurred. The job of a forensic interviewer is to distill from the child what actually occurred and to screen for any outside influences that may taint the child’s story. In doing so, a forensic interviewer will try to determine the likelihood that the child was abused and the extent of the alleged abuse, gather any facts that may assist law enforcement in an investigation, and gather facts that may be helpful for purposes of medical and psychological treatment. Forensic interviews of children are usually videotaped and preserved for use in any subsequent criminal investigation and prosecution.
It is important to understand that in most child molestation cases there is no forensic or medical evidence and there are no eyewitnesses. There is simply an allegation that has been made by a child which must be weighed against the story of the accused individual. Consequently, the videotape of the forensic interview is often critical in determining if criminal charges are filed as well as the outcome of a criminal trial. This is largely due to the fact that the video depicts the alleged victim around the time of the alleged abuse when the alleged events are fresh in his or her mind.
If the alleged victim was under 14 at the time of the interview, the tape can be played for the jury at the criminal trial. The child will also typically testify at trial and corroborate his or her statements made in the interview. As a general rule, the interviewer who conducted the interview will testify as well and will walk the jury through the interview. The interviewer will then typically tell the jury that he or she believes that the child’s interview is consistent with a child that has been abused. From the video and testimony, the jury will weigh the child’s credibility and believability. In some cases, the tape and child’s testimony alone show that the child’s story is simply not believable or that the child has been coached by an adult to say certain things. In most cases, it’s not crystal clear.
Our criminal defense attorneys in Georgia will retain a private expert in the field of child forensic interviewing well before trial. Typically, these defense experts formerly worked for the prosecution and have years of experience in conducting forensic interviews of children who were allegedly abused. These experts are well trained in the accepted rules and guidelines of child forensic interviewing, and in some cases, actually wrote the accepted rules and guidelines.
These experts will thoroughly review the forensic interview video and all relevant facts of the case. The experts will hone in on each question that was asked of the child and each response for any impropriety. There are a myriad of rules that an interviewer must follow to properly distill information from the child. In many cases, the tape will show that the interviewer asked inappropriate questions that were leading and suggestive or that the interviewer repeatedly asked a question until the child changed his or her answer. The interviewer may also fail to screen for outside influences or fail to follow up on answers that needed additional clarification and explanation.
The defense expert will also point out any inconsistent statements in the child’s story and address whether the child’s demeanor was proper under the circumstances. In the end, the defense expert will arrive at his or her own conclusion as to whether the interviewer failed to conduct a proper interview and whether the child’s interview was consistent with a child that has been abused.
Hiring the right forensic interviewing expert can be critical in winning a child molestation trial as such testimony can provide the reasonable doubt necessary for an acquittal at trial. Retaining an expert early on in a criminal case may also lead to an outright dismissal of the charges or a significant reduction in the charges well before trial.
It is important to remember that false allegations can and do lead to convictions. For this reason, it is important that you retain a qualified criminal defense lawyer skilled in defending child molestation and sexual abuse cases. Our firm has successfully represented many individuals falsely accused of child molestation and other sex crimes for many years. If you have been accused of child molestation or sexual abuse, our firm may be able to help.
Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.