Stacia N Stolzenberg's Lab

Featured research (7)

This study examined the role of character evidence and other issues in criminal appeals of child sexual abuse (CSA) convictions. Character evidence includes other acts and character witnesses who testify to another’s reputation or opinion, which is offered to prove an individual’s propensities. Examining 168 appellate court opinions reviewing CSA convictions between 2005 and 2015 in Maricopa County, Arizona, we found that when specific types of evidence were at issue, they were most often character evidence issues (49%). However, appellate courts virtually never reversed convictions (n = 5), and when defendants did obtain relief, the reduction in charges or in sentences was minor. Of the small number of opinions that were published (n = 4), all focused on character evidence, including the single case reviewed by the Arizona Supreme Court. However, close examination of the published cases suggested they effected only modest change.
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.
Since rape myths were codified in 1980 (Burt, 1980), scholars have shown that individuals who endorse rape myths perceive victims as less credible and more responsible for rape and perpetrators as less responsible. Studies also show that rape myths hinder successful adjudication of rape cases by influencing juries’ assessments of perpetrator guilt (Dinos et al., 2015). While most of this research focuses on sexual assaults involving adult victims, some scholars have found that victims as young as 12 are blamed for rape. If rape myths influence the perceptions of sex offenses even when victims are children, then defense attorneys in child sexual abuse (CSA) cases may be motivated to highlight rape myth in CSA trials. In the current study, we conducted a content analysis of the cross-examinations of 122 children, aged 6 to 17, alleging CSA to determine if and how defense attorneys question children about rape myths. We looked for questions about force and resistance, motives to lie, victim precipitation, and character issues (e.g., habitual drug use). We found that defense attorneys commonly reference rape myths in CSA trials. Ten percent of all defense attorneys’ lines of questioning referenced a rape myth, and attorneys asked 77% of children at least one rape myth line of questioning. Whether or not attorneys asked about different myths and the content of these questions varied by children’s age. Our findings indicate that defense attorneys use rape myths strategically to undermine children’s credibility in CSA trials, but they adapt (adult) rape myths in ways that are plausible in the CSA context. Policies formed to prevent the prejudicial impact of rape myths at sexual assault trials involving adults (e.g., rape shield laws) may not adequately prevent their impact in CSA trials. Prosecutors, therefore, should address rape myths at CSA trials.
Researchers studying children’s reports of sexual abuse have focused on how questioners overtly assess coaching and truthfulness (e.g., “Did someone tell you what to say?”). Yet attorneys, and defense attorneys in particular, may be motivated to ask about suggestive influence and truthfulness in subtle ways, such as with implied meaning (e.g., “Did your mom help you remember?”). Such questions may be particularly challenging for children, who may interpret statements literally, misunderstanding the suggested meaning. The purpose of the current study was to examine and categorize how attorneys’ ask about suggestive influence and truthfulness. We wanted to learn how attorneys subtly accuse suggestive influence, and how frequently this occurred. We hypothesized that questions indirectly accusing suggestive influence would be common, and that defense attorneys would ask more subtle questions, and fewer overt questions, than prosecutors. We examined 7,103 lines of questioning asked by prosecutors and defense attorneys to 64 children testifying about alleged child sexual abuse. We found that 9% of all attorneys’ lines of questioning asked about suggestive influence or truthfulness. The majority (66%) of these were indirect accusations. Indirect accusations of suggestive influence spanned a range of subtleties and topics, including addressing conversational influences (e.g., coaching), incidental influences (e.g., witnessing abuse), and others. We also found defense attorneys were less likely than prosecutors to ask about suggestive influence and truthfulness overtly. We conclude that attorneys commonly ask about suggestive influence and truthfulness in subtle ways that developing children may struggle to understand, and which may result in affirmations of influence, even when allegations are true.
In child sexual abuse cases, a central part of the child’s testimony is their description of the abuse episode. However, children often struggle to describe the body mechanics of abuse, and miscommunications are likely. The present study examined questions about the mechanics of abuse in trial transcripts (N = 63) to identify sources of miscommunication (N = 130) between attorneys and children (5 – 12 years old, M age at trial = 9 years old, SD = 2 years). Both attorneys and children used imprecise language, leading to miscommunication. Specifically, imprecise sexual terminology, the word “touch,” polarity items, broad open-ended questions, anaphora and ellipses, and “how” questions led to imprecision in attorneys’ questions. Imprecise questions often elicited under-informative answers. In response to under-informative answers, attorneys at times asked highly focused and leading questions. Implications and recommendations for future research on how best to elicit these details from children are discussed.

Lab head

Stacia N Stolzenberg
  • School of Criminology and Criminal Justice
About Stacia N Stolzenberg
  • Stacia N. Stolzenberg is an applied developmental psychologist. Before joining the faculty at Arizona State University, she was a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California. Dr. Stolzenberg's research centers on the application of developmental science to the field of child maltreatment in legal settings. The goal of her research is to improve how abuse allegations are investigated, thus protecting children and their families.

Members (5)

Suzanne St. George Coble
  • University of Arkansas at Little Rock
Emily Denne
  • Arizona State University
Colleen E. Sullivan
  • Arizona State University
Siobhan M. Lawler
  • Arizona State University
Anastacia Garcia-Johnson
  • Arizona State University
Kyle Ernest
Kyle Ernest
  • Not confirmed yet