The Christchurch Civic Creche Case

News Reports - Home

2008 Index


NZ Herald
January 12 2008

Psychologist: Ellis case questions were suspect
by Phil Taylor

       Harlene Hayne

When Peter Ellis was tried and convicted in 1993, Harlene Hayne was in her second year on the academic staff of Otago University. These days she is a professor of psychology.

With no independent corroboratory evidence, the case hung on the reliability of the children's evidence.

In question too, has been the adequacy of the questioning of the children.

That's Hayne's field. A specialist in children's memory development, some of her recent work has examined the best (and worst) ways to interview children in simulated clinical and legal contexts.

"Up to this point, I have had no relation to the Ellis case. It was never clear to me how I could contribute anything to the debate," Hayne said. "A large number of experts had been consulted in the case and there was no shortage of expert opinion on the quality of the interviews.

"A few years ago, however, as I was reading the Eichelbaum Report, it occurred to me that it might be possible to actually compare the number and quality of the questions in the Ellis case with the number and quality of the questions in another historical case to which Eichelbaum referred in his report."

That's the infamous Kelly Michaels case. Michaels, aged 23 when arrested in 1985, was a New Jersey daycare worker. She was convicted of 115 counts of child sexual abuse and jailed for 47 years. She was released five years later when the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the "interviews of the children were highly improper and utilised coercive and unduly suggestive methods".

Eichelbaum, in his report, accepted the interviews in the Michaels case were badly flawed but said that the Ellis interviews were "of a high quality".

Hayne: "We coded every question that children were asked via transcripts of the interviews for each case."

Long interviews and suggestive questions are generally accepted to be risk areas in eliciting reliable information from young children.

Hayne found that on average each of the Ellis case children were asked 400 questions per interview compared to 200 in the Michaels case.

Each child in the Ellis case was asked on average 20 suggestive questions compared to eight in the Michaels case.

Hayne concluded that there was consequently a "strong risk" the interviews were contaminated. She says the courts should look at this again.