Study Results Suggest Eyewitness Memory Can Be Highly Inaccurate

It used to be the case that eyewitness testimony was as good as gold when it came to securing a criminal conviction. It was pretty hard to mount a solid criminal defense against a witness who had supposedly seen the crime and could positively identify the defendant. But in the last few years, numerous studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often much less accurate than once assumed. For instance, the manner in which police conduct lineups and other suspect-identification procedures can unintentionally bias witnesses and lead to wrongful convictions.

Advancing neuroscience research is starting to show that even memory itself is less reliable than we think it is. This point was particularly highlighted in a recent experiment by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Researchers first trained a group of mice to be fearful of one particular spot in a maze. They did this by electrically shocking the mice each time they ran through the specific area. Next, they found a way to take this fearful memory and implant it into mice that had never experienced the shock and had therefore never learned to be afraid of the particular spot in the maze.

What researchers discovered is that mice with the implanted memory began to avoid the shock area of the maze. Those mice had never experienced the shock, but the memory implanted in their brains made them believe they had.

Obviously, no such experiment has been performed on humans. However, the results of this study show that memory is both fallible and elastic. Therefore, eyewitness testimony by itself cannot always be trusted, even when witnesses are sure that they remember the details accurately.

If you are facing criminal charges, you can’t afford to take chances. An experienced criminal defense attorney can carefully examine the evidence against you and help you understand your legal rights and options.

Source: L.A. Times, “Memories can’t always be trusted, neuroscience experiment shows,” Melissa Healy, July 25, 2013