Over the years, children have become pivotal witnesses in hundreds of criminal trials, often because criminals are less likely to worry about a child witness than an adult. However, using children as witnesses has inspired a fair amount of controversy, and the law does provide a few limitations.
While there are no age limits as far as children being witnesses in criminal trials, it is important for police officers and officers of the court to determine if the child is capable of providing accurate testimony. In most states, children must be able to tell the difference between the truth and a lie if they are going to testify.
Prior to a criminal trial, children who are listed as witnesses may have to attend a competency hearing with a judge in his or her chambers. During this meeting, the judge will ask the child several questions to determine if he or she is capable. If the judge feels that the child is able to provide accurate testimony, then the show can go on.
Of course, just because children are legally capable to serve as witnesses doesn’t mean that they will be an asset to the defense or to the prosecution. For one thing, children are susceptible to suggestion, meaning that their testimony can be swayed prior to a criminal trial. If the interviewer suggests that something happened, young children often believe it to be true. They aren’t actually lying, but they don’t know the truth.
Furthermore, studies have shown that children are easily influenced by lines of questioning that lead the witness to say one thing or another. For example, giving a child an option between two choices will force him or her to choose one, where an adult would say so if neither option applied. In many cases, child testimony will be stricken from the record because the child contradicted him or herself during questioning.
Unfortunately, children can also make unreliable witnesses if they are under a significant amount of stress. For example, asking a child to testify against his or her own parents can have serious emotional consequences later on. He or she might not realize that his or her testimony is helping to send a parent to jail, but realization will strike later on.
If your child has been called as a witness in a criminal trial, you may not have the option to refuse. Children can be subpoenaed to court just as adults can, and sometimes parents don’t have the right to fight the subpoena. However, you can help your child get through the trial by showing your support and encouraging him or her to recount the facts as he or she remembers.
In most cases, children are prepared thoroughly before serving as witnesses at a criminal trial. If the child is testifying for the prosecution, for example, the prosecutor will spend hours preparing the child for testimony, practicing questions and answers over and over until the child feels comfortable. Additionally, it may be possible to attend a “mock trial” so the child gets used to speaking from the witness stand.