Much of Lyon's current federally funded research does not directly involve crime but focuses on what helps children honestly recall events.
Some of the experiments are conducted with abused or neglected children at the dependency court in Monterey Park. Others are done during visits to schools near USC in a special van turned into a playroom with a table, toys and a hidden video recording console. Citing privacy rules, Lyon did not allow a reporter to attend the sessions but made tapes available.
In one set of experiments, an adult warns the children, ages 4 to 9, not to tell anyone that they played with, and sometimes broke, a toy; then another adult tries to elicit the truth.
A fidgety 6-year-old named Terrell is encouraged by one of Lyon's assistants to play with a Lego house but urged to keep mum about it; then another adult coaxes a confession. "She tell me to trick you," Terrell spills.
Others show what good liars young children can be. Like a loyal mobster facing the FBI, Ashley, 6, sticks to her story. Even though she did play with the forbidden toys and broke one, she insists she didn't. But in what may have been a pang of guilt, she asks, "Are those breakable?"
One of the studies tests what Lyon calls "the oath." The interviewer asks children to promise to tell the truth and reassures them that nothing bad will happen if they do. About 40% then provided accurate accounts, double the number of those who were not asked to make the promise.
Other experiments show children are more likely to tell the truth when they are informed that an adult recounted what had happened in the playroom.
Some experts question the relevance to abuse cases, saying children would face much more pressure to stay silent. Lyon concedes that many children did lie and that resistance would be higher in child abuse. Although there is no easy solution, he said, it is important to check which methods make things worse and to later test promising ones in abuse cases.
At USC law school, he is training the next generation of child interviewers. During a recent class, his students showed tapes of their practice interviews about Christmas celebrations, using Lyon's techniques. In one, a 9-year-old says his mother made holiday doughnuts and told him to eat just one. Unprompted, he confesses to snagging a second. "I got a little sneaky," he says, smiling.