CRF Blog

The End of Eyewitness Testimonies

by Bill Hayes

In The End of Eyewitness Testimonies, Newsweek magazine looks at the research on eyewitness testimony and what courts are doing about it.

Memory, as experts have been trying to teach judges and jurors, does not function like an iPhone camera recording. Memories can not only be deleted; they can be altered or invented without you even realizing it, as shown in a study published last year in the International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, which involved 861 U.S. soldiers enrolled in a survival school. As part of training, they endured abusive interrogations. Afterward, many were shown a photo of someone who looked nothing like their interrogator, and interviewers insinuated that the person depicted was the culprit. Eighty-four percent of the soldiers misidentified their interrogators after being misled, and some also remembered weapons or telephones that never existed.

An extensive body of research with similar findings has become increasingly perplexing for the nation’s judicial systems, leading the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to release a sweeping report last month calling for an overhaul of how the courts and law enforcement deal with one of the most powerfully persuasive pieces of evidence that can sway a jury: eyewitness identification. Research has shown that leading questioning or suggestive behavior by psychiatrists, police or acquaintances, as well as accounts in the media, can result in “planting” false memories in the mind of a witness. In some cases, this can lead witnesses to believe they saw incidents that never occurred. In lawsuits recently filed against Castlewood Treatment Center in St. Louis, plaintiffs have argued that therapists used hypnosis and psychiatric drugs to recover “hidden” abuse memories that turned out to be false.

Between 60 and 80 percent of psychologists and other mental health professionals still believe therapy can retrieve repressed memories, as noted in a 2013 study in Psychological Science. Yet many scientists and mental health professionals now believe that research does not support the notion that traumatic experiences can “disappear” from one’s memory only to be recalled years later in evocative detail. Here’s the more likely scenario: Those traumatic memories were instead conjured up as false memories after leading questioning by a therapist.

When it comes to long-term recollections, most memory researchers believe modifications are constantly being made, while gaps in narrative are filled in with experiences and expectations—not the actual events. Stressful situations (especially those involving a weapon), like Yvonne’s abduction, can be particularly vexing for the memory: They can take a person’s attention away from an attacker’s face and possibly lead to a skewed or mistaken identification. [more]