The Whole Truth From Five-Year-Olds

Competency for the Youngest Witnesses

New USC-UCLA Test Lets Children Show They Know the Meaning of "The Truth, the Whole Truth..."

Even all these years later, USC researcher Tom Lyon is convinced that the little girl who was approaching her fifth birthday should have been allowed to testify against the man accused of sexually assaulting her.

"If you don't tell the truth," the prosecutor asked the girl in a 1989 hearing to establish her competency to testify, "do you know what will happen to you?"

"I can tell you just what happened," she responded confidently. "He just looked down my privates and touched me there."

Ultimately charges were dropped against the suspect after the prosecutor tried and failed five more times to demonstrate that the girl - the only witness to the crime - understood the importance of telling the truth in court.

"You've got this really smart little kid, and a lawyer who does not know how to ask questions," says Dr. Lyon, Ph.D., J.D. "Because the lawyer doesn't understand how to approach the child, she doesn't get to speak her piece. It's incredibly unfair."

This and other botched competency hearings inspired Lyon, who is also a developmental psychologist, and University of California Los Angeles psychologist Karen J. Saywitz to develop a new instrument to help children meet the two basic requirements of demonstrating competency to take a courtroom oath: knowing the difference between the truth and a lie and understanding the importance of swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth.

Based on simple picture identification tasks, the Lyon-Saywitz Oath-Taking Competency Picture Task asks child witnesses to identify when story characters are lying and telling the truth and identify the consequences of the story character's actions.

"It's really helpful," says Jill Franklin, a Los Angeles dependency court attorney who has successfully used the test. "Kids get it. The judges find

Contact: Meg Sullivan
University of Southern California

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