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Associate Professor Rachel Zajac Research Interests

 Dr Rachel Zajac

Tel 64 3 479 3988
Email rachelz@psy.otago.ac.nz
Visit Associate Professor Zajac's profile

Eye-witness reliability

I work at the intersection of psychology and law. More specifically, I study the factors that influence people’s ability to provide reliable evidence about events they have witnessed. Here are some of the questions that my students and I are currently trying to answer:

What effect does cross-examination have on children’s testimony?

The majority of children testifying in adversarial criminal trials undergo cross-examination, during which their testimony is challenged by the opposing lawyer in an attempt to discredit it. By examining court transcripts and conducting experimental studies of children’s responses to this type of questioning, we have repeatedly shown that most children make changes to their earlier testimony when cross-examined. Furthermore, these changes do not appear to be restricted to corrections of earlier mistakes. In fact, cross-examination-style questioning appears to exert an overall negative effect on children’s accuracy. Our current research is aimed at finding out why this occurs, which children are most at risk, whether we can intervene to facilitate accuracy, and whether adults may also struggle to answer cross-examination questions accurately.

Can an eyewitness’s evidence become contaminated through discussions with another witness to the same crime?

Crimes often involve more than one witness, and eyewitnesses are highly likely to discuss what they saw with each other before investigators arrive on the scene. Unfortunately, incorrect information provided by one eyewitness can contaminate another witness’s evidence. We recently demonstrated that this effect extends well beyond witness’s verbal reports about what they saw, by providing empirical evidence that co-witness misinformation about a perpetrator’s appearance can increase the chances of mistaken identification from a photographic lineup. We are now trying to pinpoint the specific conditions under which this occurs.

How can we help children to avoid making mistaken identifications on photographic lineups?

There are numerous crimes in which a child may hold the only clue to the perpetrator’s identity. Unfortunately, traditional procedures for eliciting eyewitness identification evidence can pose significant difficulty for children. In particular, children appear reluctant to reject photographic lineups, even when the perpetrator is not present. Given the devastating implications of mistaken identification in a legal context, it is crucial that researchers attempt to better understand children’s lineup decisions and, where possible, intervene. We have recently developed the ‘wildcard,’ a simple technique to improve children’s identification accuracy. We are now examining the conditions under which the wildcard is successful, and whether its success may extend to other groups of witnesses who are prone to error (e.g., older adult witnesses).

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Publications

Benedan, L., Powell, M. B., Zajac, R., Lum, J. A. G., & Snow, P. (2018). Suggestibility in neglected children: The influence of intelligence, language, and social skills. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 51-60. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.01.005

Zajac, R., Westera, N., & Kaladelfos, A. (2018). The "good old days" of courtroom questioning: Changes in the format of child cross-examination questions over 60 years. Child Maltreatment, 23(2), 186-195. doi: 10.1177/1077559517733815

Zydervelt, S., Zajac, R., Kaladelfos, A., & Westera, N. (2017). Lawyers’ strategies for cross-examining rape complainants: Have we moved beyond the 1950s? British Journal of Criminology, 57(3), 551-569. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azw023

Zajac, R., Westera, N., & Kaladelfos, A. (2017). A historical comparison of Australian lawyers' strategies for cross-examining child sexual abuse complainants. Child Abuse & Neglect, 72, 236-246. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.07.010

Westera, N., Zydervelt, S., Kaladelfos, A., & Zajac, R. (2017). Sexual assault complainants on the stand: A historical comparison of courtroom questioning. Psychology, Crime & Law, 23(1), 5-31. doi: 10.1080/1068316X.2016.1217334

Chapter in Book - Research

Zajac, R. (2009). Investigative interviewing in the courtroom: Child witnesses under cross-examination. In R. Bull, T. Valentine & T. Williamson (Eds.), Handbook of psychology of investigative interviewing: Current developments and future directions. (pp. 161-180). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. doi: 10.1002/9780470747599.ch10

Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2009). Cross-examination: Impact on testimony. In A. Jamieson & A. Moenssens (Eds.), Wiley encyclopedia of forensic science. Wiley. doi: 10.1002/9780470061589.fsa471

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Journal - Research Article

Benedan, L., Powell, M. B., Zajac, R., Lum, J. A. G., & Snow, P. (2018). Suggestibility in neglected children: The influence of intelligence, language, and social skills. Child Abuse & Neglect, 79, 51-60. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.01.005

Zajac, R., Westera, N., & Kaladelfos, A. (2018). The "good old days" of courtroom questioning: Changes in the format of child cross-examination questions over 60 years. Child Maltreatment, 23(2), 186-195. doi: 10.1177/1077559517733815

Zydervelt, S., Zajac, R., Kaladelfos, A., & Westera, N. (2017). Lawyers’ strategies for cross-examining rape complainants: Have we moved beyond the 1950s? British Journal of Criminology, 57(3), 551-569. doi: 10.1093/bjc/azw023

Westera, N., Zydervelt, S., Kaladelfos, A., & Zajac, R. (2017). Sexual assault complainants on the stand: A historical comparison of courtroom questioning. Psychology, Crime & Law, 23(1), 5-31. doi: 10.1080/1068316X.2016.1217334

Zajac, R., Westera, N., & Kaladelfos, A. (2017). A historical comparison of Australian lawyers' strategies for cross-examining child sexual abuse complainants. Child Abuse & Neglect, 72, 236-246. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.07.010

Zajac, R., Irvine, B., Ingram, J. M., & Jack, F. (2016). The diagnostic value of children's responses to cross-examination questioning. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 34(1), 160-177. doi: 10.1002/bsl.2215

Osborne, N. K. P., Taylor, M. C., & Zajac, R. (2016). Exploring the role of contextual information in bloodstain pattern analysis: A qualitative approach. Forensic Science International, 260, 1-8. doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2015.12.039

Zajac, R., Dickson, J., Munn, R., & O'Neill, S. (2016). Trussht me, I know what I sshaw: The acceptance of misinformation from an apparently unreliable co-witness. Legal & Criminological Psychology, 21(1), 127-140. doi: 10.1111/lcrp.12032

Osborne, N. K. P., & Zajac, R. (2016). An imperfect match? Crime-related context influences fingerprint decisions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(1), 126-134. doi: 10.1002/acp.3180

Irvine, B., Jack, F., & Zajac, R. (2016). Preparing children for cross-examination: Do the practice questions matter? Psychology, Crime & Law, 22(9), 858-878. doi: 10.1080/1068316X.2016.1197224

Jack, F., Friedman, W., Reese, E., & Zajac, R. (2016). Age-related differences in memory for time, temporal reconstruction, and the availability and use of temporal landmarks. Cognitive Development, 37, 53-66. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2015.12.003

Osborne, N. K. P., Taylor, M. C., Healey, M., & Zajac, R. (2016). Bloodstain pattern classification: Accuracy, effect of contextual information and the role of analyst characteristics. Science and Justice, 56, 123-128. doi: 10.1016/j.scijus.2015.12.005

Anderson, L., Gross, J., Sonne, T., Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2016). Where there's smoke, there's fire: The effect of truncated testimony on juror decision-making. Behavioral Sciences & the Law, 34, 200-217. doi: 10.1002/bsl.2212

Righarts, S., Jack, F., Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2015). Young children's responses to cross-examination style questioning: The effects of delay and subsequent questioning. Psychology, Crime & Law, 21(3), 274-296. doi: 10.1080/1068316X.2014.951650

Zajac, R., & Jack, F. (2015). Improving children's performance on photographic line-ups: Do the physical properties of a ‘wildcard’ make a difference? Legal & Criminological Psychology, 21(2), 358-371. doi: 10.1111/lcrp.12075

Jack, F., Martyn, E., & Zajac, R. (2015). Getting the picture: Effects of sketch plans and photographs on children's, adolescents' and adults' eyewitness recall. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 29(5), 723-734. doi: 10.1002/acp.3156

Jack, F., & Zajac, R. (2014). The effect of age and reminders on witnesses’ responses to cross-examination-style questioning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory & Cognition, 3(1), 1-6. doi: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2013.12.001

Jack, F., Zydervelt, S., & Zajac, R. (2014). Are co-witnesses special? Comparing the influence of co-witness and interviewer misinformation on eyewitness reports. Memory, 22(3), 243-255. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2013.778291

Osborne, N. K. P., Woods, S., Kieser, J., & Zajac, R. (2014). Does contextual information bias bitemark comparisons? Science and Justice, 54(4), 267-273. doi: 10.1016/j.scijus.2013.12.005

Jack, F., Leov, J., & Zajac, R. (2014). Age-related differences in the free-recall accounts of child, adolescent, and adult witnesses. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 28(1), 30-38. doi: 10.1002/acp.2951

Zajac, R., Garry, M., London, K., Goodyear-Smith, F., & Hayne, H. (2013). Misconceptions about childhood sexual abuse and child witnesses: Implications for psychological experts in the courtroom. Memory, 21(5), 608-617. doi: 10.1080/09658211.2013.778287

O'Neill, S., & Zajac, R. (2013). The role of repeated interviewing in children's responses to cross-examination-style questioning. British Journal of Psychology, 104(1), 14-38. doi: 10.1111/j.2044-8295.2011.02096.x

Righarts, S., O'Neill, S., & Zajac, R. (2013). Addressing the negative effect of cross-examination questioning on children's accuracy: Can we intervene? Law & Human Behavior, 37(5), 354-365. doi: 10.1037/lhb0000042

O'Neill, S., & Zajac, R. (2013). Preparing children for cross-examination: How does intervention timing influence efficacy? Psychology, Public Policy, & Law, 19(3), 307-320. doi: 10.1037/a0031538

Zajac, R., O'Neill, S., & Hayne, H. (2012). Disorder in the courtroom? Child witnesses under cross-examination. Developmental Review, 32(3), 181-204. doi: 10.1016/j.dr.2012.06.006

Karageorge, A., & Zajac, R. (2011). Exploring the effects of age and delay on children's person identifications: Verbal descriptions, lineup performance, and the influence of wildcards. British Journal of Psychology, 102(2), 161-183. doi: 10.1348/000712610X507902

Zajac, R., & Henderson, N. (2009). Don't it make my brown eyes blue: Co-witness misinformation about a target's appearance can impair target-absent line-up performance. Memory, 17(3), 266-278. doi: 10.1080/09658210802623950

Zajac, R., Jury, E., & O'Neill, S. (2009). The role of psychosocial factors in young children's responses to cross-examination style questioning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(7), 918-935. doi: 10.1002/acp.1536

Zajac, R., & Cannan, P. (2009). Cross-examination of sexual assault complainants: A developmental comparison. Psychiatry, Psychology & Law, 16(Suppl. 1), S36-S54. doi: 10.1080/13218710802620448

Zajac, R., & Karageorge, A. (2009). The wildcard: A simple technique for improving children's target-absent lineup performance. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(3), 358-368. doi: 10.1002/acp.1511

Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2006). The negative effect of cross-examination style questioning on children's accuracy: Older children are not immune. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 3-16. doi: 10.1002/acp.1169

Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2003). I don't think that's what really happened: The effect of cross-examination on the accuracy of children's reports. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 9(3), 187-195.

Zajac, R., Gross, J., & Hayne, H. (2003). Asked and answered: Questioning children in the courtroom. Psychiatry, Psychology & Law, 10(1), 199-209.

Zajac, R. (2001). Cross examination and the child witness. Childrenz Issues, 5(1), 33-38.

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Conference Contribution - Published proceedings: Full paper

Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2001). The effect of cross examination on the accuracy of children's reports. Society for Research in Child Development. Minneapolis, MN. [Full Paper]

Zajac, R., Gross, J., & Hayne, H. (2000). Courtroom questioning and children's testimony: Do the questions matter? American Psychology-Law Society. New Orleans, LA. [Full Paper]

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Conference Contribution - Published proceedings: Abstract

Osborne, N., Kouwenhoven, M., Thompson, W. C., & Zajac, R. (2017). Determining the relevance of contextual information in forensic handwriting examinations. Forensic Science International, 277(Suppl. 1), (pp. 197). doi: 10.1016/j.forsciint.2017.07.019

Wake, K., & Zajac, R. (2016). To report or not to report: Does the decision to report a crime affect memory? Proceedings of the Psycolloquy Seminar. (pp. 20). Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of Psychology, University of Otago. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/research/otago059081.html

Wake, K., Cardwell, B., & Zajac, R. (2015). Does difficulty recalling childhood memories affect how we evaluate our childhood? Proceedings of the Psycolloquy Seminar. (pp. 21). Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of Psychology, University of Otago. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/research/otago059081.html

Westgate, S., Gallagher, E., Gross, J., Zajac, R., & Hayne, H. (2015). A trip down memory lane: Adults' recall of significant past events and the role of speculation. Proceedings of the Psycolloquy Seminar. (pp. 13). Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of Psychology, University of Otago. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/research/otago059081.html

Irvine, B., & Zajac, R. (2014). "Of course I lied, mum asked me to!" The effect of cross-examination on children's responses when they have been coached to lie. Proceedings of the Psycolloquy Seminar. (pp. 24). Dunedin, New Zealand: Department of Psychology, University of Otago. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/research/otago059081.html

Morten, J. T. P., Jack, F. K., & Zajac, R. (2013). Explaining differences in eyewitness recall: The contributions of age, intelligence, and memory. Proceedings of the Association for Psychological Science (APS) 25th Annual Convention. Retrieved from http://aps.psychologicalscience.org/convention/program_2013/search/viewProgram.cfm?Abstract_ID=27452

Irvine, B., & Zajac, R. (2012). Preparing children for cross-examination: Can children generalise from practice questions to the real deal? Proceedings of the Psycolloquy Seminar. (pp. 15). Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/psychology/otago039512.pdf

Jack, F., & Zajac, R. (2012). The negative effect of cross-examination-style questioning on witnesses' accuracy decreases with age. Proceedings of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) Conference. (pp. 111). Retrieved from http://www.ap-ls.org/conferences/apls2012/index2012.php

Osborne, N. K. P., Woods, S. R., Kieser, J., & Zajac, R. (2012). Reality bites: The effect of contextual information on the interpretation of bitemark evidence. Proceedings of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) Conference. (pp. 36). Retrieved from http://www.ap-ls.org/conferences/apls2012/index2012.php

Jack, F., Devlin, L., & Zajac, R. (2012). The effect of co-witness misinformation on children's, adolescent's and adult's recall of a witnessed event. Proceedings of the American Psychology-Law Society (AP-LS) Conference. (pp. 110). Retrieved from http://www.ap-ls.org/conferences/apls2012/index2012.php

Jack, F., & Zajac, R. (2011). Simple versus cumulative misinformation effects. Proceedings of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition (SARMAC) Conference IX. (pp. 18-19). Retrieved from http://www.sarmac.org/images/upload/downloads/SARMAC_IX_2011.pdf

Jack, F., Martyn, E., & Zajac, R. (2011). The use of visual aids during interviews with child, adolescent and adult witnesses. Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Memory (ICOM-5). (pp. 137-138). Retrieved from http://www.york.ac.uk/conferences/icom5/Abstract%20Booklet_ICOM5220711.pdf

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