Eyewitness Accounts Shouldn’t Be Taken As Absolute Truth

Researchers studying the validity of recounted memories have discovered something that many criminal defense lawyers have known for quite some time, “Memories can be unreliable.” According to the researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), relying on witness accounts of alleged activity in the criminal context can be particularly troublesome.

In some cases, incorrect memories can lead to false accusations of criminal activity. Statistics from the Innocence Project back up this ‘new’ information from the MIT researchers. Of all the convictions overturned on DNA evidence, 75 percent involved faulty witness identifications.

The researchers use mice as test subjects to determine whether they were able to alter memories based on outside stimuli. Based on their findings, a memory that seems real may actually be a product of a past experienced that has been changed by the context in which it was remembered. Happy memories can turn into sad memories if they are remembered just prior to a tragic event. Conversely sad or tragic memories can lose their bite if remembered in the context of a safe environment, such as a therapist’s office.

Researchers site the positive outcomes of this study to include the potential ability to rewrite debilitating memories, an act that could offer a cure to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example.

For criminal defense lawyers and those who have been falsely accused of a crime, research like this may help to discredit faulty eyewitness accounts before an innocent person is wrongfully convicted of a crime he or she did not commit.

Source: Los Angeles Times, “Memories can’t always be trusted, neuroscience experiment shows,” July 25, 2013