- Published: November 7, 2012
Psychology has long indicated that memory formation and eyewitness testimony isn’t nearly as reliable as we’d like to think. There have been numerous cases where one accused through eyewitness testimony was incorrectly convicted, only to be eventually released through DNA evidence or other information. Neuroscience has been providing the evidence for why memory formation (especially in testimony) presents explicit challenges to reliability and integrity of judicial evidence (SLS Blog). An understanding of this research should be actively understood by legal professionals in order to better analyze and understand eyewitness testimony.
A 2011 Wisconsin State Journal article illustrates a quintessential false memory case. The article discussed a civil lawsuit in which the parents of a Wisconsin teenager who received therapy and was convinced of “implausible childhood memories, including that her father raped her, that her mother tried to drown her and that the family was involved in cults and infanticide.” The parents accused the therapists of professional negligence; such a phenomenon has been long studied in cognitive psychology as vision is often mediated by top-down neural functioning and also as memory is reconsolidated. From the perspective of neuroscience, University of Washington Professor Elizabeth Loftus emphasizes the “the malleability of memory” and how various factors (ranging from our imagination to leading questions in court) can alter or even create memories. Citing numerous studies in neuroscience and psychology that clearly suggests that memory is not nearly as reliable as most people think, Loftus notes the questions that arise “about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses.” As she concludes, “Our scientific understanding of memory should be used to help the legal system to navigate this minefield.”
Granted, eyewitness testimony has been relevant and useful in numerous trials, but it is crucial to note that recent research has a compelling point: eyewitness testimony must be more critically analyzed to enhance reliability, and it would be ideal to prevent eyewitness biases (with leading questions and even counterproductive therapy) and mistakes in the courtroom. The bottom line is that we’ve learned that sensory and memory errors are very common, and neuroscience has been continually elucidating the limits of our memories and senses. While this research and knowledge may at the very least increase skepticism of verdicts (and hopefully prevent unjust sentencing), it may also help to bolster Neurolaw advocacy and allow for an more empirically advised courtroom.
Stanford Law School Blog Post on Eyewitness Testimony-- http://blogs.law.stanford.edu/lawandbiosciences/2011/02/14/the-daily-digest-21411/
"Unreliable Eyewitness Testimony"- http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/2007/05/03/unreliable-eyewitness-testimon/
“Our changeable memories: legal and practical implications.” (2003) Elizabeth Loftus. Nature: Science and Society, Volume 4, 231-4
Erickson, Doug. "Jury Weighs Verdict in 'false Memory' Trial after Woman Accused Her Parents." Madison.com. N.p., 22 Jan. 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2012. <http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/crime_and_courts/article_e078ae34-2698-11e0-8877-001cc4c002e0.html>.