In November, Pennsylvanians will have a chance to amend the state constitution to alter the nature of testimony in Pennsylvania’s courts, according to the Sept. 26 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. If the amendment is approved, it would allow people to testify in court by video rather than in person. The arguments in favor of such an amendment usually focus on children. The claim is that children should not have to testify against adults they know under the stress of being in the presence of the accused adult.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala was quoted as saying, “A criminal trial is supposed to be a process of determining the truth.” This raises two important questions regarding the proposed amendment. First, can children ever provide accurate testimony in court? Second, would the proposed amendment help courts determine the truth in cases involving children?
The answer to the first question is a qualified yes. Research in child psychology shows that children can provide accurate testimony. Children’s testimony can, however, easily be made inaccurate. Repeated questioning about the same event can cause children to remember the event inaccurately. This is because under repeated questioning children decide that their first answer must be wrong. Why else would the adult keep asking about it? Children then not only change their story but come to believe that the changed story is true. In fact it is remarkably easy to cause children and adults to remember events that never happened.
Allowing children to testify by video tape would be a powerful tool for judges to prevent the repeated questioning of child witnesses. If the court wanted to review a child’s testimony, the child would not have to be placed on the stand to be questioned again. The judge could just order the tape to be replayed.
Children would not be the only people protected by the proposed amendment. Preventing children from being repeatedly questioned protects those who are accused but innocent. Suppose a child is asked “Did he ever touch you here?” and the child responds “No.” The accused would be protected from the changing of the likely accurate initial testimony due to repeated questioning.
Another factor that can reduce the accuracy of children’s testimony is their desire to please adults. Children depend on adults to take good care of them. Thus children have a motivation to please adults, even adults who mistreat them. There are cases, such as when parents are accused of abuse, in which children are asked to testify against adults who are close to them. Video testimony would provide separation from the close adult. This would reduce the pressure on children to provide testimony that would please the close adult. Here too, the proposed amendment would improve the accuracy of children’s testimony making it more likely that truth would be found.
Therefore, I conclude that allowing children to provide video testimonies would increase the chances of determining the truth in criminal trials. My only misgiving about the proposed amendment is that it not limited to children’s testimony. Would giving adults the right to provide testimony by video help courts arrive at truth? Not all who are accused are guilty. Perhaps adults should have the right to meet adults who accuse them face to face in court. If the proposed amendment dealt only with children’s testimony it would have my vote in November. As it is currently written, I am undecided.