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Witnesses With Intellectual Disabilities in Court: What Questions Are Asked and What Influence do They Have?

NCJ Number
Legal and Criminological Psychology Volume: 9 Issue: 1 Dated: February 2004 Pages: 23-35
Mark R. Kebbell; Christopher Hatton; Shane D. Johnson
Date Published
February 2004
13 pages
This British study determined the ways in which witnesses with and without intellectual disabilities were examined in court, with attention to the specific questions asked and their influence on witness responses.
Transcripts were obtained for 16 trials that involved witnesses with intellectual disabilities and 16 trials that involved witnesses from the general population. Intellectual disabilities were documented either through formal psychological assessments or by the nature of the care homes in which the witnesses lived. The cases included 26 trials for rape and sexual assault and 6 cases of assault. The trials were held at eight English courts between 1994 and 1999. Control witnesses from the general population were matched for type of alleged crime involved, year, and court. All witnesses were the alleged victims of the crime at issue. The analysis of the trial transcripts focused on the questioning strategies used by attorneys and the influence of the strategies on witness responses. The transcript analysis found that the questions asked of witnesses with intellectual disabilities were almost identical to those of witnesses from the general population. This suggests that the attorneys did not attempt to tailor their questions to the limitations of the handicapped witnesses. Questions asked in cross-examination were particularly poorly crafted for eliciting accurate recall of events experienced by witnesses with intellectual disabilities. In terms of witness responses, the answers given by those with intellectual disabilities were shorter and more likely to agree with a leading question than was the case with witnesses from the general population. The authors discuss the implications of these findings for attorney questioning of witnesses with intellectual disabilities. 4 tables and 47 references


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