Legal Blog

Docuseries ‘Outcry’ Explores the Reality of False Child Molestation Allegations

August 17, 2020

Showtime's five-part documentary exposes how improper questioning and investigative techniques in child molestation cases can and will lead to the arrest and conviction of innocent people.

If there is one lesson to be learned from Outcry, it is that even the powerful and respected can fall victim to a child’s false allegation and to society’s inclination to believe and support the child at all costs. This desire not only fuels the parents’ and community’s calls for justice, but also can influence the actions of those charged with investigating these cases. It is only with a true understanding of how false allegations such as these are made, can people then begin to recognize the signs of when and how a child’s statement needs to be further scrutinized. The mere fact that a child said it happened should never be sufficient to justify a lack of investigation or a rush to judgment.

However, when high school football star Greg Kelley was accused by a four-year-old boy of aggravated sexual assault, that is exactly what happened. In the first two episodes, Outcry explores the flaws in the forensic interviews and the way in which the children may have been influenced by suggestive and repetitive questioning. With practically no investigation by the police, Kelley was arrested. Then, just a couple of weeks following his arrest, another child purportedly makes an allegation, but the interview with that child is riddled with problems and is anything but convincing.

The Kelley family hired who they believed to be a very competent criminal defense attorney. She was well-respected and had recently proven the innocence of a man who spent 25 years in prison after being falsely convicted of killing his wife (in the same county nonetheless). While she appeared to believe in Kelley’s innocence, and was a good lawyer, she didn’t seem to have a lot of experience in defending false child molestation claims. As a result of this and an apparent conflict of interest that comes out in later episodes, her investigation suffered from many of the same shortcomings. Thus, the defense may have underestimated just how difficult it is for jurors to understand these concepts and be able to detect when a child may have made a false allegation.

In the later episodes, a great contrast is then shown when Kelley’s new lawyer re-investigates the case and breaks it wide-open – exposing flaws and alleged misconduct in the police investigation as well as a defense theory that is often overlooked: that the child was molested, but by someone other than the accused. All too often these cases are boiled down to whether or not the child was molested at all. However, many people don’t realize that there are times when a child has, in fact, been molested but accuses someone other than the actual perpetrator. This is referred to as perpetrator substitution and it occurs in a number of false allegation cases.

The proving of Kelley’s innocence by defense attorney Keith Hampton is nothing short of remarkable. He inherited the case well after the allegations were made which was not optimal. Nevertheless, his examination of the evolution of the kids’ statements exposes a series of missteps in the investigation and the distinct possibility of another suspect who may have committed the offense. He spent countless hours combing through forensic data from Kelley’s cell phone to establish that he could not have even been at the house when these children claimed to have been molested.

Hampton also benefited from a new District Attorney who was not blinded by the unyielding desire to believe the children that infected the prosecutors who tried the case. The new DA was open-minded and willing to spend the county’s time and resources to ensure that an innocent person wouldn’t spend decades in prison.

Though once it appears that Kelley’s innocence had been proven, those who believed and supported the children from the start were unfazed regardless of how convincing the new revelations were. This shows how support for children in these cases can be so overpowering that it shields us from the truth. Many people want to believe that false allegations of child sexual abuse are extremely rare and that if it occurs, it will be obvious. However, research shows that these cases are complex and a child’s false allegation can be just as convincing to us as a true one.

While the takeaway from Outcry should certainly not be that child molestation allegations should never be believed. Of course, many of them are true. What people need to understand, however, is that false allegations do occur more often than we realize and they inevitably lead to wrongful convictions. Very few defense attorneys are experienced enough in these cases to detect when their client may have been falsely accused. This leads to them putting their trust into the forensic interviewers and the police who are the ones we expect to have the experience and training to distinguish a false allegation from a true one. The reality is that this is often not the case and, as a result, the falsely accused is incapable of proving his innocence. There are likely thousands of people right now languishing in prisons as a result of false molestation allegations.

While Outcry certainly will not change everyone’s minds, as the latter episodes demonstrate, it is imperative that it is watched by enough parents, caretakers, child forensic interviewers, police officers, or anyone who may find themselves on either side of one of these allegations or even on a jury, so that the mistakes made in Greg Kelley’s case are learned from and never repeated.

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