Researchers like Dr. Maggie Bruck, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, and Stephen Ceci, professor of psychology at Cornell University, say that false memories are easy to implant in children’s minds and that suggestive, repetitive questioning can induce them to say things about abuse that simply are not true. In 2000, Bruck and Ceci co-wrote what some in their field consider the seminal text on the subject: Jeopardy in the Courtroom: A Scientific Analysis of Children’s Testimony.
One example of how to induce false memories in children involves the use of anatomical dolls and puppet shows. "Investigators can misuse any props in a suggestive way," says Bruck in a telephone interview. "The misuse of props provokes more opportunities for false accusations. Research has shown that it leads to errors — kids play with the dolls and it may not be anything sexual at all, but investigators still include them in their reports."
To be sure, it would be nearly impossible to judge the techniques used 20 years ago by the investigators in the Baran case. Unedited tapes and transcripts of the original interview sessions no longer exist. But in a recent interview, Detective Collias, now retired, acknowledged that their approach toward the children in Baran’s case may have been flawed.
"We didn’t have the set-up" to properly interview the children, he says. "We did the best we could with what we had at the time."
As compelling as the jury found the children’s testimony, scant physical evidence was ever presented to support the charges of sexual abuse. Doctors examined all six children, but only two, Jane Reed and Tom Hill, showed any physical signs of harm.
Dr. Jean Sheeley, a Pittsfield pediatrician now at the Bay State Medical Center, in Springfield, examined both children. She testified that she found microscopic tears in Jane’s hymen, and gonorrhea in Tom’s throat. Such evidence was viewed as extremely significant at the time. In the 1980s, the field of child-sexual-abuse research was quite new, and doctors thought any genital damage in children was a sure sign of abuse.
"Twenty years ago, there were no sexual-abuse experts," says Dr. Angela Rosas. "It was all handled by pediatricians." The director of the Child Abuse Program at Sutter Medical Center, in Sacramento, California, Rosas specializes in abused and neglected children. The techniques Sheeley used to measure Jane’s hymenal tears are now considered "sort of useless," Rosas says, after Sheeley’s examination methods are described to her. "That practice has fallen by the wayside."
Jane’s genital injuries were relatively small, says Rosas, so a doctor would have to look at the surrounding tissue, like the vagina and labia, to diagnose abuse correctly. Sheeley never testified to any damage to those tissues, which can heal within a matter of days. All in all, based on Sheeley’s testimony, Rosas says, "you can’t draw any conclusions" about whether abuse occurred.
By contrast, Tom’s gonorrhea was an unmistakable sign of sexual abuse. Prosecutor Ford suggested that Baran was more likely to get gonorrhea because of his "lifestyle." But while the evidence verified that Tom was sexually abused, it did not necessarily point to Baran. Baran told authorities that he had contracted a sexually transmitted disease in his early teens, but that it had been treated and cured. He tested negative for gonorrhea at Berkshire Medical Center on the day of his second arrest.