Using pre-recorded investigative interviews to improve the quality of complainant evidence in rape cases

  • Nina Westera

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


There is a sound empirical basis to suggest that the pre-recorded interview of an adult rape complainant made during the investigation should provide the court with more accurate, detailed and complete testimony than live evidence later given at trial. The timeliness of the interview, and the different questioning and interviewing strategies used by police when compared to prosecutors, are all likely to improve the quality of the complainant’s recall (e.g. Memon et al., 2010; Powell et al., 2005; Read & Connelly, 2007). Despite these potential improvements, pre-recorded evidence is seldom used with adults (Kingi & Jordan, 2009; Stern, 2010). In part this may be due to the limited systematic research that examines whether the potential benefits are seen in practice. The purpose of the present thesis was therefore to explore how using prerecorded evidence may improve the quality of information complainants provide and thereby outcomes in rape cases. In the first two of three studies a mixed-methods approach was used to explore the perceptions of police (N=136) and then prosecutors (N=30) regarding the use of video interviews for investigations and evidence. A questionnaire firstly used a between subjects design to determine whether question type and interview format in a mock rape complainant transcript influences judgments about accuracy and decisions to charge. Next, perceptions about the advantages and disadvantages of using the video recorded interview were explored. Finally, a list of characteristics was rated according to what denoted an effective investigative interview. This was compared with how they rated the same characteristics for what provides the best evidence. The findings suggest that for both police and prosecutors accuracy, detail and completeness are three of the most desirable traits for investigations and for evidence. The enhancement of these traits was also the most commonly cited benefit of the video recorded interview. Poor questioning methods were ranked as the least desirable characteristics for both investigations and evidence. The presence of these characteristics in the interview was cited as a disadvantage of the video by both groups as it was considered that this may diminish complainant credibility judgments. Supporting the importance of questioning methods, both groups rated the mock transcript of the complainant’s account as less accurate and that they were less likely to charge or recommend charges when poor questioning was used. Commonly cited disadvantages of both police and prosecutors was that prerecorded evidence may be less impactful as evidence both due to the video medium and iv interview format. The findings suggest concerns about interview format relate to the long free narratives likely generated by the cognitive interview contrasting with expectations of a more controlled eliciting of testimony from the complainant. The third study presented in this thesis was the only study to ever use a within subjects design to compare the investigative interview of the complainant with their live evidence at trial in real rape cases (N=10). Content consistency, questioning and interview format were examined. A customised consistency coding scheme was developed to particularize details that may make complainant’s testimony more convincing. Findings indicated that over two thirds of the details in the interview that were central to establishing the offending were later omitted from live evidence. This loss of detail was most pronounced with cognitions that may form a vital part in explaining counter-intuitive behaviour by the complainant such as her own explanation for her behavioural response (see Ellison, 2007, Tempkin, & Krahé, 2008). Also diminished were details about verbalizations, physical actions and emotions, that may reduce ambiguity around consent and add to the convincingness of complainant testimony. For example, details about conversations around the issue consent. A small number of inconsistencies between the interview and live evidence suggest accuracy was also reduced (e.g., Powell et al., 2005; Read & Connelly, 2007). Both police and prosecutors predominantly used closed questions, but open questions elicited a majority of the information. The significantly longer question responses and use of cognitive interview techniques by police may explain some of the differences in testimony found. The findings clearly suggest that the quality of information received by jurors is severely diminished when rape complainants give live testimony compared with a police interview. Pre-recorded evidence is perceived by police and prosecutors as a legitimate means of improving the quality of complainant testimony and thereby, given the central role of complainant testimony, increasing convictions in rape cases. Empirical evidence of actual court cases indicates that reality is consistent with these perceptions.
Date of AwardDec 2011
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Griffith University Queensland
SupervisorMark Kebbell (Supervisor) & Becky Milne (Supervisor)

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