Chapter 5 Blind Memory
If a suspect’s fate can depend on what an eyewitness remembers, how do courts deal with the fallibility of memory?
The Innocence Project helps to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. They’ve reported that eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions.
Karen Newirth is a senior staff attorney at the Innocence Project, working in the strategic litigation unit on eyewitness identification. She says one of the most powerful parts of her job has been “hearing stories of wrongful convictions in the cases where witnesses talk about what it is like to realize that their memories were wrong and that through their testimony they put an innocent person in prison. The system doesn’t help them to sort through what might be a real memory and what might be contamination or an elaboration.”
“When we see eyewitnesses, victims and defendants in highly emotional situations, their memories are just so plastic,” said Julia Shaw, author of “The Memory Illusion” and a psychological scientist and memory expert who testifies in court. “So I wanted to understand how exactly that works.” Shaw set out to see if she could convince participants in a study to adopt the memory of a crime they hadn’t committed. “I’ve had conversations with neuroscientists who essentially argue that the distinction between imagination and memory is mostly meaningless,” she said. “It’s the same neurons doing the same tasks. So the only difference is maybe strength. And if you reinforce something often enough than memories and imagination just pretty much look identical.”
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To hear the results of Shaw’s study, listen to “Court of Memory.” https://embed.radiopublic.com/e?if=memory-motel-WwEYL8&ge=s1!8f0c7722d13ad723abab7a1cde4c5a46088835e8“>here