Letters from the issue of Thursday, May 29, 2003

Kristin Ayala

via the Internet

Meet Sam Stone: I have no doubt about the innocence of Randall Zimmerman from reading Julie Jargon's article relating his most memorable encounter with Arapahoe County Deputy District Attorney Christine Schober. Of course Schober is disappointed she didn't ruin Mr. Zimmerman's life even more than she already has, and she goes on to suggest that "just because someone's found not guilty doesn't mean they're innocent."

For Ms. Schober's edification, I would like to propose that ascertaining the credibility of others is not always as easy as you might think. In fact, the inability of "expert" evaluators to establish the credibility of the accounts of children is dramatically illustrated in the "Sam Stone" study by Leichtman and Ceci, 1995. Furthermore, I believe that the findings of their study have direct relevance to "Judge Not."

In their study, young children three to six years of age were interviewed under a number of different suggestive conditions about a stranger named Sam Stone. The experimenter informed children that Sam Stone was a friend and that he was very clumsy. Over the course of the next few weeks, these children were told numerous stories about Sam's clumsiness (a technique called "stereotype induction"). Ultimately, all of the children in the experimental group met Sam Stone. He made a single visit to their classroom and was introduced to them during story time. On the following day, the teacher showed all the children a soiled teddy bear and a ripped book. (Sam had not defiled either of these objects.) Every two weeks for the next few months, some of the children were presented repeated misinformation about Sam' s visit by being asked misleading questions, e.g., "When Sam Stone tore the book, did he do it on purpose or was he being silly?" These are just the type of questions I can imagine the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office posing to their star witness, "Mary."

Then, at the end of twelve weeks, all of the children were questioned by a new interviewer about what had actually happened during Sam Stone's visit. Not surprisingly, children who had been repeatedly interviewed with the combination of stereotype induction and repeated misleading questions made the most false reports about the events of Sam Stone's visit. Furthermore, some of the children went beyond simple assents to Sam's misdeeds. These children provided elaborate false perceptual details and used nonverbal gestures in order to embellish their false stories. For example, children used their hands to show how Sam had purportedly thrown a book up in the air; children reported seeing Sam on the playground, on his way to the store to buy chocolate ice cream, or in the bathroom soaking the teddy bear in water before smearing it with crayon.

Finally, and most important in regard to the topic at hand, so-called experts (including mental-health professionals, research psychologists, judges, social workers and prosecutors [such as Ms. Schober]) were shown videotapes of children in the Sam Stone study reporting the events of Sam's visit. When these "experts" were asked to judge the children's credibility, they proved to be very inaccurate. They judged children whose reports were the product of suggestive interviewing as being highly credible, while those whose reports were more accurate were often judged to be less believable and credible.

Many of the children had likely come to believe the misinformation they were telling adults. Maggie Bruck, et al., refer to this state as "false belief," as opposed to lying. In fact, these children were not aware that their reports were factually false, and therefore showed no signs of deception. They appeared quite motivated to tell the truth, with their reports appearing quite consistent, animated and cohesive. With this in mind, I would like to throw Ms. Schober's accusatory statement right back at her: "Just because someone's found guilty doesn't mean they committed the crime."

Please send my heartfelt regards to Mr. Zimmerman and his family. Not that it makes their experience any less painful to know this, but I am certain that what they have endured is not that uncommon: The Salem Witch Trials are as alive today as they were in 1692.

Bert Dech, M.D.


Concrete Dreams

Beggars can't be choosers: Regarding Michael's Paglia's "Sunset for Skyline," in the May 15 issue:

I feel it's time we did something with that stretch of filthy concrete and piss-covered "architecture" as soon as possible. It's called a park, but there isn't a shred of greenery the entire length of it. It's mainly riffraff and mall rats who occupy the space, and personally, I can't see why it was ever built in the first place. As if there wasn't enough concrete in downtown to revere, the claim that the "park" was featured in an architectural-landscape textbook is hilarious.

The city should build the section of the park from 16th to 15th into a skatepark, a public graffiti wall and a performance stage. This would give incentive to the mall rats to do something productive with their lives and give the yuppies eating lunch or sipping Starbucks a chance to use their spare change wisely by supporting "artists" rather than beggars.

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