The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has recognized, for the first time, that children who accuse adults of molesting them can have false memories of attacks, formed during repeated questioning by social workers and police, and might be incompetent to testify in a trial.
In an opinion filed Thursday, the court ruled that defendants in sex-abuse cases are entitled to a pretrial hearing at which they can attempt to show that a child’s recollection of abuse was tainted by suggestive interviewing techniques.
“Common experience informs us that children are, by their very essence, fanciful creatures who have difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality; who when asked a question want to give the ‘right’ answer, the answer that pleases the interrogator; who are subject to repeat ideas placed in their heads by others; and who have limited capacity for accurate memory,” Chief Justice Ralph J. Cappy wrote.
The court made its ruling in the case of Gerald Delbridge, now 42, who was convicted in Luzerne County of molesting two children, ages 6 and 4, between 1997 and 1998.
Delbridge’s lawyer, Tom Pavlinic, said the abuse allegations might have been planted in the children’s minds by adults – including their mother – who were insistent on establishing that an assault had taken place.
A Luzerne County judge ruled that the children understood the difference between the truth and a lie, had demonstrated their ability to recall basic facts, and were generally competent to testify at the trial.
But the high court said Delbridge should also be allowed to examine during the competency hearing the issue of whether the children’s memories were tainted. The court ordered that hearing to take place within 180 days. If the children are found incompetent to testify, it could lead to a new trial.
Justice Russell M. Nigro dissented, saying he thought the issue of whether a child’s “supposed memory of an event should be believed” is an issue of credibility, not competency, and should, therefore, be left to a jury.
A spokeswoman for Luzerne County District Attorney David Lupas said prosecutors were reviewing the ruling and had not decided whether to appeal.
High courts in several states have ruled that children who have been improperly questioned or coached by psychologists and prosecutors may not be competent to testify.
Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Irvine, said children’s memories can be susceptible to suggestion, especially if they get the impression that they can please adults if they remember things in a certain way.
“Kids can figure out that if you keep asking them a question, it’s because they didn’t give the right answer the first time,” Loftus said. “That kind of thing has been responsible for many people going through expensive and emotional trials, and being convicted, and spending years and years in prison.”