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Reliability of child witnesses

Historic Forensic Psychology shines light on reliability of child witnesses

A University of Canterbury historian’s new research into historical German forensic psychology may give insight into the reliability of witness testimony, particularly in cases where children appear as prosecution witnesses.

UC Senior Lecturer in Modern European History Dr Heather Wolffram’s new book – Forensic Psychology in Germany, 1880-1939: Witnessing Crime – examines the emergence and early development of forensic psychology in Germany from the late nineteenth century until the outbreak of the Second World War, highlighting the field’s interdisciplinary beginnings and contested evolution.

“My book looks at how and why the psychology of the witness, particularly the child witness, became important in German courtrooms in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Germany,” she says.

“It uses a number of sensational murder and sex crimes trials to look at how psychological expertise was applied in court and asks why forensic psychology appears to have gone into decline under the Nazis.”

There remains today significant concern about the reliability of witness testimony, particularly in cases where children appear as prosecution witnesses, Dr Wolffram says.

“My work shows that the kinds of debates that emerged in the 1990s around the reliability of repressed memories and juvenile witnesses, were not new and had been rehearsed in German courtrooms as early as the 1890s. My work demonstrates what some of the consequences of these earlier debates were for the treatment of juvenile witnesses and the fortunes of forensic psychologists.”

Initially envisaged as a psychology of all those involved in criminal proceedings, this new discipline of forensic psychology promised to move away from an exclusive focus on the criminal to provide a holistic view of how human fallibility impacted upon criminal justice. As this book argues, however, by the inter-war period, forensic psychology had largely become a psychology of the witness; its focus narrowed by the exigencies of the courtroom.

Using detailed studies of the 1896 Berchtold trial and the 1930 Frenzel trial, the book asks whether the tensions between psychiatry, psychology, forensic medicine, pedagogy and law over psychological expertise were present in courtroom practice and considers why a clear winner in the “battle for forensic psychology” had yet to emerge by 1939.

Dr Heather Wolffram is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Canterbury’s School of Humanities and Creative Arts . She is a historian of modern Germany with interests in the histories of medicine and forensics and is the author of The Stepchildren of Science: Psychical Research and Parapsychology in Germany, c. 1870-1939 (2009). Her newest book, Forensic Psychology in Germany, 1880-1939: Witnessing Crime, was published with assistance from a Fast Start Marsden Grant.

Forensic Psychology in Germany: Witnessing Crime, 1880-1939, by Heather Wolffram, (Palgrave Macmillan, 257pp) ISBN 978-3-319-73593-1
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