Desiree Andaverde was 3 years old when she told police she watched "daddy put mommy in the trunk."
A few days later, police found her mother's frozen body in a car outside a bar where she was a regular. She had been strangled.
That was in 1991. The little girl's startling story, which police said included an account of the killing, didn't persuade authorities to bring charges against Thomas Zich.
But now, more than 17 years later, Andaverde is expected to testify against her former stepfather — despite defense objections that her memories are too old and may have been influenced by family members who long suspected Zich.
It's a case that spotlights the conflicting views on the reliability of child witnesses and how their recollections are shaped by what others tell them about traumatic events in the past.
Studies have found that child witnesses are vulnerable to suggestions from relatives and police that can influence what they think they remember. But research also has shown that the memories of even preschool children tend to be accurate and can be more reliable than an adult's memory because a child's mind focuses on what happened rather than the meaning of what happened.
Zich, 62, of Swanton, faces life in prison if he is convicted of murdering Mary Jane Zich.
Jury will decide testimony's credibility
Investigators have not said why they reopened the case in 2005 or what evidence tied Zich to the killing when they charged him two years ago.
Little information has been released about what the girl said in 1991 and what she will say if she testifies as expected this week. The judge has ordered both sides not to discuss the case publicly.
Defense attorney Alan Konop argued in pre-trail hearings that Andaverde made inconsistent statements as a child. He also noted that they could no longer challenge her competency, because only witnesses younger than 10 must be declared competent to testify in Ohio.
"No one can say for sure if her specific memory is correct," said Robyn Fivush, a psychology professor at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied how children react to life-changing moments. "All memory is reconstructed to some extent. That's not to say it isn't accurate."
Lucas County Judge Gene Zmuda turned down the defense's request to bar Andaverde's testimony and ruled it should be up to the jury to decide her credibility.
Andaverde is believed to be the only witness who will say that she saw how her mother died. Three of Zich's former wives have testified that he had threatened them and grabbed them by the neck.
Leading the child witness
Research into child witnesses and their memories took off in the mid-1990s after a soaring number of young people began testifying in sexual and domestic abuse cases.
There's a common belief that children will remember a traumatic moment even at an early age — much the way baby boomers can recall exactly where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot.
But that's not the case, said Charles Brainerd, a human development and law professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. "The general idea that traumatic memories are special and preserved for a lifetime is not true," he said.
Most people's memories stretch back as far as age 3, but for some it can be 5 or 6, research has found. And those memories can evolve over time.
Children, particularly those in preschool, are highly susceptible to suggestive questions that can influence their memories, said Brainerd, who co-wrote "The Science of False Memory."
The book found that some police investigators, up until the late 1990s, would use suggestive and leading questions with child witnesses — essentially telling them what to say without realizing how they were influencing the answers, Brainerd said.