USC Gould School of Law professor Thomas Lyon was doubly honored this month: Two undergraduates working under his guidance were awarded first place in the annual USC Undergraduate Symposium for Creative and Scholarly Work, and he was awarded a $25,000 grant from the Provost’s Initiative on Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Both awards centered on issues related to children who testify in child molestation cases.
Lyon served as the faculty adviser for Emily Winckel ’10 and Jenna Tomei ’10 for their project “Stereotypes and Child Sexual Abuse Trials.” The project examined stereotypes relating to the perpetrators and victims of molestation to see how they affected jury decisions. The duo’s first-place award was in the social sciences category.
Winckel and Tomei worked in Lyon’s research laboratory during their junior year, studying some of the problems associated with child witnesses and courtroom testimony.
“Any honors project takes an enormous amount of time and energy, but Jenna and Emily went above and beyond what would be expected,” Lyon said. “They did a wonderful job and identified some of the difficulties in convicting individuals of child molestation.”
The students gathered trial transcripts from child molestation cases in Los Angeles County and compared the arguments made in convictions to those in acquittals.
Although sexual abuse usually involves a perpetrator close to the child who uses bribes and other inducements to elicit the child’s compliance, the students predicted that convictions would be more likely when the perpetrator was a stranger who used force to commit the crime. Their predictions were supported by the results, which suggests that jurors are more willing to convict when the defendant’s actions match the stereotype of the “monster molester.”
Lyon, who holds the Judge Edward J. and Ruey L. Guirado Chair in Law and Psychology, in 2006 was awarded a $1.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further his research on ways to encourage truthful information from abused children. Lyon said Winckel and Tomei’s research is an important discovery.
“Abuse of children by familiar perpetrators is an act of betrayal,” he said. “Children who have been harmed by someone they know experience a loss of faith in loved ones and may lose the ability to trust adults. In the long run, this can cause much greater harm than stranger molestation. My student’s findings show that these children also have a much harder time proving their case in court.”
The USC Undergraduate Symposium for Creative and Scholarly Work provides undergraduates with the opportunity to exhibit and share examples of their significant research and creativity with the university community. This year, there were more than 120 submissions with participation from more than 180 students. Projects are judged on five criteria: originality, comprehension, organization and completeness, effort and motivation, and clarity.
“The festival gives students a great opportunity to showcase their work and serves as an impetus to encourage and challenge other undergraduates to participate in research at some point in their academic careers,” said David Glasgow, who organizes the annual event.
Lyon’s Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences award will allow him to continue his work with the transcript and case information from the 272 Los Angeles County trials in which children testified in child molestation cases.
“Court transcripts provide numerous opportunities to examine the intersection of cognitive, social and linguistic development as well as legal processes for assessing children’s credibility,” Lyon explained.
His project will be the first large-scale examination of how child witnesses actually perform in court and how the methods by which attorneys question children about abuse relate to case outcome.
“The grants are awarded to faculty whose scholarship is particularly promising and whose innovative projects have far-reaching impact,” said Justin Pearlman, assistant vice president for research advancement in the humanities and social sciences.
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