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False Memory & Eyewitness Testimony Essay

A false memory is simply a memory that did not occur. An actual experience can become distorted as best illustrated by the Cog Lab experiment on false memories accessed through Argosy University. The experiment is outlined as follows: a participant is given a list of words that are highly relative in nature at a rate of about one word every 2 seconds. At the finish of the given list, the participant is then shown a list of words in which he or she is to recall the words from the original list.

A special distractor is inserted to the list, and this word, although highly relative in nature, was not in the original list. For example, the original list might be all beach related words such as sun, sand, waves, etc. The special distractor in this case could be seagull. Although not presented in the original list, there is a very high percentage of special distractor recall. My personal distractor recall in this experiment was a whopping 67%, and I knew ahead of time that I was going to be tricked and tested.

A normal distractor is a word presented not related to the original material at all, and in my case I did not pick any normal distractors. I believe it is noteworthy to say that there was no time lapse in my test, and I missed 24% of the original words (Ashcraft & Radvansky, 2010). DNA exonerations have shown that eyewitness testimony is not very reliable. In fact, The Innocence Project states that of their first 275 DNA exonerations, over 75% of those wrongful convictions were due to faulty eyewitness testimony.

A look at the case of John Jerome White will reveal just how faulty eyewitness testimony can result in the wrongful conviction and subsequent prison sentence of an innocent man. The victim in this case was a 74 year old woman whose home was broken into and she was sexually assaulted. Eight times at the trial she did not waver when she affirmed that, yes, John Jerome White was the man who did this to her. The jury found him guilty and he was sent to prison. Years later, DNA evidence exonerated him and he was set free (Rankin, 2011).

What about the execution of Troy Anthony Davis? The State of Georgia executed him in 2011 for killing a cop although they had no physical evidence that linked him to the crime, but they had eyewitness testimony. When addressing the slain officer’s family, he said he was sorry for their loss, but it was not him that took their family member’s life, implored them to seek the truth, and asked for God to have mercy on his executioners’ souls. Since his execution, 7 out of the 9 eyewitness have recanted or changed their testimony.

This is an outrage in and of itself and a black eye to our justice system (Troy Anthony Davis executed in Georgia after appeals exhausted, 2011). The bank robbery occurred in Slidell, LA. , where the population is 76% white. It is very possible that if the perpetrators were of any other race than white, there would be difficulty in identification (U. S. Census Bureau, 2012). Studies show that witnesses are more apt to correctly identify their own race than any other (Rankin, 2011).

In this case, both of the perpetrators brandished weapons, even holding them out. According to studies, such as one conducted at University of Louisiana at Lafayette, when a weapon is brandished during the commission of a crime, the weapon effect occurs. This is the state of witnesses or victims being so intently focused on the weapon that it impairs the memory of the assailant’s face. This same study shows that accuracy in lineup recognition was poorer when a weapon was present or shown during the commission of the crime (Saunders).

In this case, two weapons were brandished. Could that double the impairment? There is also a forgetting curve called the Ebbinhaus Forgetting Curve, in which studies have shown that 24 hours after a participant studies information, almost 2/3 of the material is forgotten. Now apply that to eyewitness testimony. “When a witness perceives a complex event, a number of factors, such as exposure time, or the salience of the event, or the witnesses poor expectations, will affect the accuracy of what is perceived and stored in memory” (Olivarez,2010).

Post event information, such as a newspaper article or even a conversation about the event can “cause nonexistent details to become incorporated into previously acquired memory” (Olivarez, 2010). In police procedure, often times photo spreads and lineups will not include the perpetrator. The eyewitness is not aware of this tactic and is not told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup at all which can lead to the witness choosing the relatively closest in resemblance to the actual perpetrator. The distractors used in ineups and photo spreads are poorly chosen, not resembling the perpetrator in height, weight, or coloring among other factors. When the examiner is aware of the perpetrator’s identity, he may give subtle verbal cues when the witness chooses him or her, in effect suggesting with an affirmative nod, or by casually remarking “well done”, or “good’. Leading questions can also lead to a distortion of the facts by implanting misinformation (Green, 2009). Studies show that just a verb change in the line of questioning can alter or impair a witness’s memory.

For example, in an experiment by Loftus and Palmer in 1974, participants watched a film about a traffic accident. After watching the film of the accident, they were instructed to come back a week later to answer some questions regarding the accident without watching the film again. The verb change in the questioning was about the collision of the vehicles. Some were asked how fast were they going when they “smashed” into each other, and some were asked how fast were they going when they “hit” each other. The critical question was if they had seen any broken glass.

The group that was exposed to the “smashed” line of questioning said that yes, they had seen broken glass 32% of the time as opposed to the “hit” group which reported yes 14% of the time. This is extremely important ladies and gentlemen: There was NO broken glass, and yet both groups reported broken glass because it is typical of an automobile accident to PRODUCE broken glass. The verb change alone in the line of questioning more than DOUBLED the report of broken glass (Loftus, 1979). There are a few things that could be done to reduce tainted eyewitness testimony.

Make sure that lineups and photo spreads are conducted double bling, so that neither the examiner nor the witness is aware of who might or might not be in the lineup. Inform the witness that the perpetrator may very well not be in the lineup. Distractors should match the description of the perpetrator, and confidence should be assessed immediately. A false memory is a memory of something that did not happen. The results of my own Cog Lab experiment on false memories can attest that false can be fabricated from even the best of circumstances, and from the most well intended motivation.

The fact is, DNA exonerations prove that eye witness testimony is unreliable. The cases of Mr. White and Mr. Davis are clearly miscarriages of justice. The bank robber in Slidell must be carefully analyzed for corroborating evidence other than eyewitness testimony. Close examination of police procedures, including poorly chosen distractors in lineups, suggestive behavior, and leading questions can all effect how the witness responds. We cannot forget that 1/3 of participants recalled broken glass from the Loftus experiment due to a suggestive inflammatory verb. There was no broken glass in the video.

The justice system clearly needs to catch up with science and demand physical evidence be present to convict. In the Book of Genesis when God was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham interceded and said to God, “Will You consume the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous who are in it?… What if ten are found there? ” The Lord said, “I will not destroy it for the sake of ten”. This is the founding truth on which William Blackstone’s ratio was coined in the 1760’s, “Better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer”


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