Can a child testify in a criminal trial?

One more bonus reprint; was originally published several years ago in First Draft, newsletter of the SinC Guppies chapter, then lived on my website in the Questions of the Month.

Can a child testify in a criminal trial? 

Yes, but very young children must first be found competent to testify. In Idaho, Joseph Duncan was set to stand trial for murdering a woman, her boyfriend, and her teenage son, and kidnaping her two younger children for sex; he later killed the younger boy but was captured in Montana with the girl, then nine. Idaho law requires a judge to interview privately any child under ten to determine competency. Days before trial, the judge found the girl competent to testify.

Some states establish competency review requirements by statute, while others rely on case law. Most states require that witnesses under ten be interviewed to determine their competency, either before trial or during trial but outside the presence of the jury. Older children’s competency may also be challenged, if the lawyer opposing the testimony files a motion asking the court to determine competency. In the Duncan case, the nine year old is the only living witness to a triple homicide; the judge determined her competency before trial because of the potential effect on plea discussions and trial if she were unable to testify.

The issue in determining competency is whether the minor witness has the ability to 1) understand the obligation to tell the truth, and 2) to accurately relate events seen, heard, or experienced. (The same rules apply to adult witnesses whose mental capacity is in question.) Those criteria are broken down further into these elements:

• Capacity to observe.
• Sufficient intelligence.
• Adequate memory.
• Ability to communicate.
• Awareness of the difference between truth and falsehood.
• Appreciation of the obligation to tell the truth in court. Judges are trained to use age-appropriate terms and measures. A young child may say that if she lies she’ll be punished, or if he doesn’t tell the truth, God won’t love him any more. In most cases, that’s enough.

In Washington State, a three year old was allowed to testify about abuse that occurred when she was two, because she met the basic criteria for competence as to the subject of her testimony. Obviously, she could not be asked more complex questions that a seven or ten year old could understand and respond to, but she demonstrated her understanding of the difference between the truth and a lie, and the importance of telling the truth; the judge concluded that she had the necessary ability to observe and communicate what had happened to her. However, it’s entirely possible that another three year old or an older child might not be found competent.

When a child is unable to testify, their prior statements to parents, counselors, doctors, or law enforcement may be admissible at trial under some circumstances. I’ll look at that issue in another column.

As a direct result of the Idaho court’s competency decision in Duncan’s case, on the day jury selection was scheduled to begin, Duncan pled guilty in state court to three charges of first degree homicide and three charges of first degree kidnaping. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole on the kidnaping charges. Federal prosecutors plan to try him on additional kidnaping and homicide charges for taking the two young children to Montana where he molested both and killed the boy. If he is not sentenced to death on the federal charges, Idaho may still seek the death penalty on the Idaho homicides. Duncan said he wanted to spare the family and community any more pain. It’s unlikely that he would have pled guilty without the nine year old’s testimony. Two other states are still considering charges for unrelated crimes.

The possibility that a child will testify can add a lot of drama and tension to a case. You can use that possibility, the competency evaluation, and the trial testimony to complicate your plot and add layers to your story.

The Duncan case is discussed in several Q&A in my book, Books, Crooks & Counselors.