We often hear public outcry regarding cases of children’s sexual victimization, but we rarely get to see what happens within the courtrooms. The reality is that not all of these cases face swift justice. In new research based on observations of seventeen jury trials, Amber Joy Powell, Heather R. Hlavka, and Sameena Mulla show that in trials where children serve as witnesses, defense attorneys often work to discredit children’s testimonies by relying on racial and gendered stereotypes.
The children who testified in the observed trials ranged from age five to sixteen, most were Black and Latinx youth, and all but two were girls. One of the strategies defense attorneys used included emphasizing the fragility of children’s bodies, especially girls’ bodies. They argued that the absence of visible physical or psychological injuries indicated the jury had reason to doubt the children’s claims. For those who were teenagers at the time of the assault, attorneys argued that adolescents, especially adolescent girls, were rebellious, manipulative, and less trustworthy than younger children. This especially applied to Black girls’ testimonies because they were often perceived as older than their ages and thus defense attorneys claimed they were more blameworthy. Attorneys also relied on stereotypes of deviant Black families, drawing on narratives about dysfunctional families, promiscuous “welfare mothers,” “baby mamas,” and blaming parents for having drugs in the house.
In the cases where boys testified, attorneys relied on jurors’ difficulty believing that men could sexually assault boys without leaving physical evidence for someone to find. In one case, the defense attorney questioned the credibility of an adolescent Latino boy based on a “rumor” that he might be gay. In a post-trial interview, a juror proposed that “Latino culture” might have prevented the boy from admitting the sex was consensual.
While many sexual assault survivors face doubts about their credibility, this research show how children are often discredited in these cases because of distinct assumptions about gender, sexuality, and race. In particular, children of color confront cultural narratives that have the potential to produce unjust outcomes in the courtroom.