Recent research into false allegations of sexual assault

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There is very little research into false allegations of sexual assault. It is a toxic subject area. In most cases, there is very little evidence to corroborate either side of the story. As defense lawyers, we are always trying to stay current on the literature though.

I recently came across an article in the March 2012 publication of the Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice called "Pathways to False Allegations of Sexual Assault." It was written by Jessica Engle and Dr. William O'Donahue from the University of Nevada. The full citation is at the end.

The article - is of course - written by psychologists. So the perspective is from intellectuals considering the mental health aspect of an alleged victim's claim (or defendant's denial). Over the years, lawyers have made it increasingly difficult to obtain the mental health record of an alleged victim. In fact, presently under Military Rule of Evidence 513, it is nearly impossible. The law is crafted in such a way to require defense counsel to know what is in the records before being granted access to the records.

The authors rightly note that in cases involving questions of consent there is rarely any unequivocal evidence, which makes discerning the truth challenging. The authors also rightly observed that sometimes there can be pathways to false allegations that result from mental health issues. We would note - as defense attorneys - that these pathways can be equally as helpful in understanding a potential defendant's denials.

The authors have proposed 11 forensic psychology pathways (processes) to false allegations of sexual assault that are helpful to defense lawyers. I have taken those pathways and added sub-pathways to help build the framework.

1) lying;
(a) core discrepancies;
(b) secondary gain.

2) implied consent (and mistake of fact);
(a) whether the alleged victim engaged in behaviors that can plausibly be interpreted as providing consent.

3) false memories;
(a) were suggestive interviewing techniques used;
(b) did government officials push the alleged victim to try and remember information harder; and,
(c) did family members or friends implant subtle incorrect information;

4) intoxication;
(a) evidence of voluntary behaviors and choices;
(b) evidence of high levels of cognitive function; and,
(c) confabulation to fill gaps in memory.

5) antisocial personality disorder;
(a) failures to conform to social norms regarding lawful behaviors;
(b) confirmed deceit or fraud;
(c) irritability and aggressiveness; and,
(d) lack of remorse.

6) borderline personality disorder;
(a) quickly switching from idealization to devaluation of relationship; and,
(b) evidence of extreme feelings of abandonment.

7) histrionic personality disorder;
(a) always has to be the center of attention;
(b) frequently inappropriate and provocative;
(c) style of speech that lacks details;
(d) easily influenced; and,
(e) commonly views the relationship as more intimate than they really are.

8) delirium;
9) psychotic disorders;
10) disassociation; and,
11) intellectual disability

The authors caution against a simplistic reading of their research. Part of the purpose of their research was also to call attention to the fact that there is not enough research on the topic. These are such emotional cases that offending people is always a danger when discussing even science. For instance, simply because a person has borderline personality disorder does not inherently mean that the allegation is untrue. But, the diagnosis could be a marker that explains why a particular person engages in riskier behaviors (and therefore is at increased risk for assault). Mental health conditions can also lead to distortions of perception that may provide markers for false allegations. In the paper, false allegations are knowingly fabricated claims or allegations based on abnormal information processing.

Studying any topic involving sexual assault is a challenge. The research is going to be subjected to intense scrutiny. Definitional issues can cause significant variability from study to study. In the military, an inappropriate touching on the buttocks through clothing is treated as a sexual assault - equal with forcible rape. How we categorize data can have a significant impact on our understanding of the problem. Military law enforcement officials are often evaluated based on the number of investigations they have "founded." There is a built-in incentive for law enforcement to found cases unless there is clear evidence that the allegation is false. The data is difficult to analyze.

When evaluating any allegation, we are often looking for discrepancies in the story. The authors write that "core discrepancies" are "central details of the case and, thereby, any variations in these details is considered a strong indication of a false account of events."

In an emotional event, individuals are more likely to recall the core aspects of the event rather than peripheral aspects. For example, we would expect a person to remember whether the event was inside or outside, but not necessarily what street name it occurred on. Studies show that the emotionality of the event should actually enhance memories of the core features.

We are also typically looking for secondary gain resulting from the lie. In the military, the secondary gain can include avoiding trouble, the benefits of victim status (reassignment), excusing behaviors, and even financial gain.

Implied consent may be the most difficult aspect of sexual assault defense to understand. The law is increasingly moving towards a view that only affirmative consent (spoken yes) is permissible. In other words, we are not going to allow a man to infer that a woman is consenting based on her behaviors. It's an idea that is often inconsistent with jurors personal experiences.

There is also the concept of mistake of fact. These are facts that - if true - would relieve the defendant of liability for the offense. If a reasonable sober person would believe that a woman was consenting, then the accused is not guilty of sexual assault.

Implied consent is most thorny when there is a pre-existing sexual history between two people. It can lead to the thought that they did it before, so they can do it again. It is not a legally sound thought process. This can lead to a woman feeling trapped or coerced into having sex. Consent last week is not consenting for next week.

Likewise, consent early in a sexual encounter is not necessarily consenting for further sexual contact.

The ambiguity in how we are crafting the rules of consent can potentially lead to "the alleged victim engag[ing] in behaviors that can plausibly be interpreted as providing consent, but the victim herself may not understand or realize this."

False Memories
There is actually research demonstrating successful implanting of false memories. Some people even can have vivid memories of false events. Suggestive interviewing techniques, misinformation, and excessive encouragement to remember can all lead to false memories.

The Loftus study is particularly interesting. In that study, researches showed people clips of a traffic accident. The participants were then asked to assess the rate of speed of the vehicles. The researches modified the verbs in their questions though. If the researcher asked how fast the cars "smashed into each other" the participants would rate the speed higher than if they asked how fast they "bumped" into each other. Loftus has since conducted over 200 studies with 20,000 participants repeating the study.

Obviously, the consumption of alcohol or drugs - voluntarily or involuntarily - can lead to distortions in memory and information processing. Nearly every jurisdiction has laws stating that a person cannot consent while incapacitated from intoxicants. The danger is that a person under the influence of intoxicants may have deficits in forming memories, like blackouts. They can also confabulate events to fill in the gaps.

Antisocial Personality Disorder
When we're assessing APD, we're looking for past evidence where the person failed to conform to social norms regarding lawful behaviors, confirmed deceit, irritability and aggressiveness, and lack of remorse.

Borderline Personality Disorder
The primary diagnostic criteria that we are looking for is "quickly switching from idealization to devaluation of relationship." Also, extreme feelings of abandonment can lead a person to lie. The rapid of shifting from love to hate can lead a person to construe events as abuse.

Histrionic Personality Disorder
For people with this disorder, we want to examine evidence that a person always has to be the center of attention, that they are often inappropriate and provocative, has a style of speech that lacks in detail, that they are suggestible or easily influenced, and views relationships as more intimate than they really are.

Delirium, Psychotic Disorders, Intellectual Disability, and Dissociation
These are disturbances of consciousness and cognition. Dementia is rare in the military realm.

Jessica Engle BA & William O'Donohue Ph.D. (2012) Pathways to False Allegations of Sexual Assault, Journal of Forensic Psychology Practice, 12:2, 97-123, DOI: 10.1080/15228932.2012.650071
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