For the Accused
If You Are Falsely Accused
Avoid the Common Mistakes
If you are falsely accused: How to avoid the most painful mistakes
When it happens
Your innocence does not protect you. When innocent people are confronted with untrue, absurd allegations of child abuse, they frequently assume that this is a simple misunderstanding and that it will be cleared up quickly. They cooperate with police and try to explain. They have faith in our system of justice. They do not demand that a lawyer be present. Take the allegations very seriously.
Don’t be ashamed. If you are innocent, you have nothing to be ashamed of. It is important to contact friends and family members early in the process. Tell them what happened. People tend to form opinions quickly and take sides.
Do not give a statement to the police without a lawyer present. In spite of the founding legal principle that everyone is assumed innocent until proven guilty, in cases of alleged child abuse, police, district attorneys, social workers, and physicians often assume guilt. It is also legal for police to lie to you during interrogations, saying things like, “We have proof that you are guilty, so you might as well confess and we’ll go easy on you.”
Gather support. Organize a defense fund or, even better, find someone to do that for you. The NCRJ may sponsor your case (after we look into all the documentation to be sure we believe in your innocence). But we have limited resources and cannot fundraise for you.
Find a good lawyer
Don’t hire someone out of the Yellow Pages. You may be tempted to hire a local lawyer who has little experience with child abuse allegations. If you can avoid it, do not do this.
Get an attorney with specialized experience. Cases involving false allegations of child abuse are complicated, especially because the crime is often one that never occurred. Find a lawyer in your state who has experience in defending against child abuse allegations and a record of diligence, integrity, and success. NCRJ may be able to help you locate such an attorney.
If you can’t hire the best, and must work with someone without experience in these cases, insist that your lawyer consult an expert. If the lawyer refuses, get another one. If you must use a public defender, try to insist on one who will listen to your questions and return your phone calls. Public defenders are often underpaid and overworked, but many are dedicated and competent.
Stay involved. As with any legal case, become involved in your own defense. Keep detailed notes about everything that happens. Keep a file with official papers and an accurate chronology.
Educate yourself. Read everything you can find on false allegations and how they occur. See the articles on this website for a start. If your lawyer is not familiar with Stephen Ceci and Maggie Bruck’s work, for instance, refer her or him to it.
As your case proceeds
Get all the documents. Tape everything. Children’s memory and testimony can be contaminated by leading, repeated interviews that assume guilt. Therefore, it is crucial to your defense that your lawyer demand early “discovery” of all videotapes, audiotapes, and transcripts of interviews with accusers and that all interviews be videotaped. Many defendants have been let go when a judge or jury looked at the interviews and saw that accusations were pulled from children who kept saying that nothing happened.
Consult the experts. Experts in this area can see where coercion or suggestion has taken place. So, even if your lawyer feels it is possible to argue your case without doing so, demand that she call expert witnesses who can assess interviewing techniques or discuss human suggestibility or memory distortion. In addition, convictions are won by convincing juries that you are an evil and perverted person. Demand that character witnesses be called.
Protect your relationship with your children
The court may order the removal of your children or prohibit you from having contact with them. You and your lawyer have no power to stop this. However, you can protest their placement especially if the custodial adult assumes you are guilty. This is important . Someone who assumes your guilt may persuade your children of the same.
Consider media coverage
Weigh the pros and cons. The media are unpredictable. You are just as likely to get bad coverage as good. Sometimes it is best — for you, your family, and your case — to avoid publicity, and instead to negotiate behind the scenes. But there are times when publicity can save you. The legal system is supposed to act impartially, but intelligent, sympathetic media attention can have a powerful positive effect on the outcome of your case.
Stay local. If you decide to seek media coverage, find a local journalist or television news reporter to look into the case. It is much harder to gain the attention of a major national media outlet such as Sixty Minutes or the New York Times . Before contacting the reporter, find out about her. Has she ever covered similar stories? Do others in the community or the press consider her reporting thorough and fair?
Publicize outside the media. You may want to consider letting the NCRJ post your case on its website. Or there may be support groups for families and friends of the accused in your state. Explore the links on our site.
Keep the story simple. Rambling on and providing too many details is a good way to lose potential supporters. Practice with friends. Come up with just a few important points that you want to stress. Explain the basic facts of your case quickly, simply, and convincingly. You can always fill in the details later in response to questions.
If you face a plea bargain
Don’t panic. Just before trial, it hits home for many people that a guilty verdict could send them to prison for many years. If offered a plea bargain, they accept it.
Know the consequences. We cannot tell you never to take a plea bargain. It is one of the most difficult decisions anyone has to make. We hope that following the above advice — and especially finding a good lawyer — will prevent you from ending up in this situation. But if you do face it, you should know the consequences of pleading guilty.
Even if you spend no time in prison, you will most likely be put on a sex offender registry, where you will remain for years or even for life. The conditions of your parole will limit where you can live, affect your job and educational prospects, and your family life. Your movements will be limited. You will need to be in constant touch with your parole officer or face high penalties (including incarceration). Equally important, if you plead guilty, an appeal of your conviction will be virtually unwinnable.
Don’t give up.
When you are falsely accused, it is easy to become depressed, feel overwhelmed, and want to give up. Do everything you can to maintain your sanity and sense of humor. Many people beat these charges, recover from the trauma, and go back to live happy lives. The NCRJ is here to help you.