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Taking the stand: Defendant statements in court cases of alleged sexual abuse against infants, toddlers and preschoolers

Journal article
Authors Mikaela Magnusson
Emelie Ernberg
Sara Landström
Pär-Anders Granhag
Published in Psychology, Crime and Law
Volume 24
Issue 7
Pages 744-759
ISSN 1068-316X
Publication year 2018
Published at Department of Psychology
Pages 744-759
Language en
Keywords Admission of guilt, confession, legal decision-making, child sexual abuse, courtroom
Subject categories Applied Psychology, Psychology


Investigating and adjudicating allegations of child sexual abuse are challenging tasks. In the present study, we examined defendant statements concerning charges of sexual abuse against young children in Swedish district court cases (87 defendants, 140 child complainants, tried between January 2010 to December 2015). A main objective was to test predictive factors for admissions of guilt using inferential statistical analyses. Furthermore, using qualitative thematical analysis, we sought to identify common patterns in the defendants’ explanations to the allegation. Approximately one-third of the defendants (31%) pleaded guilty during trial. Admissions of guilt were more likely if the defendant was young, if the child was young at the onset of abuse, if the child and perpetrator had an extrafamilial relationship, and if the defendant possessed child pornography. A conflict with the person who made the report (e.g. a custody dispute), a testimony from the child, a direct eyewitness, or an informal disclosure recipient were significantly more common in cases of denials. In the qualitative analysis, a range of alternative explanations behind the abuse allegations were identified. Legal professionals and investigators may benefit from considering these alternative hypotheses during their investigative and judicial work.

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