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False Witness

March 29, 2015

Recent scientific studies have shown that memory is completely different from the way it seems.  Memories are malleable;  they can be implanted or modified.  I already wrote a blog about this aspect of memory.  One of the consequences is that eyewitness testimony can be unreliable, even though courts prefer eyewitness testimony to circumstantial evidence.

One experiment showed  how easy it was to get people to confess to crimes that they had not committed.  All it took was prolonged interrogation with repeated accusations.  Pretty soon most of the subjects were providing new details of these crimes.  In another experiment, under aggressive questioning, subjects began to accuse other people of committing a purported crime.  It was the threat of punishment that drove them to provide the false testimony.

Here’s a practical example of how witnesses in a murder case were manipulated into providing false testimony in court.  The police had very little evidence in this case, other than the stories told by witnesses.  It does seem as if they had identified a suspect early in the investigation but these witnesses exonerated him.  They used prolonged and intensive interrogation until two of them changed their stories.  Then they charged their suspect with the crime.  He was convicted and sent to prison.

This case does not prove that police interrogation was at fault, but it does raise a whole series of questions.  Did these witnesses initially lie to protect their friend?  Did they change their stories as a way to stop the interrogation?  Did their memories of the events of the murder actually change during interrogation?  Did they believe they were telling the truth when they gave that false testimony in court?

Who can the law trust now?  Who can juries believe?  What has to change in our legal system?  I have no doubt that the legal system can accomodate recent findings on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.


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