Sent: Tuesday, February 18, 2003 11:54 AM
Subject: Innocent convicted by witness testimony--false memory

As Loftus shows, innocent persons are regularly convicted of crimes they did not commit on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony.  In these cases, the
eyewitnesses do not commit perjury.  They do not willfully lie, but rather they tell the truth as they have come to believe it.  She explains:

          Why, after all, would they lie?  Ah, there's the word - lie.  That's the word that gets us off
           track.  You see, eyewitnesses who point their finger at innocent defendants are not liars, for they
           genuinely believe in the truth of their testimony.  The face that they see before them is the face
           of the attacker.  The face of innocence has become the face of guilt.  That's the frightening part -
           the truly horrifying idea that our memories can be changed, inextricably altered, and that what we
           think we know, what we believe with all our hearts, is not necessarily the truth.  (p. 13) 

Loftus provides a striking example of how memories can be distorted.  Jean Piaget, the famed child psychologist, tells in his book Plays, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood of his vivid memory of a violent attempt to kidnap him as a child.  Piaget's nurse saved the boy by fighting off the attacker.  Throughout his childhood and early teen years, Piaget had explicit memories of this traumatic event.  But when he was fifteen years old, the nurse confessed in a letter to the family that she had created the entire story out of thin air, and that no such kidnapping attempt had ever taken place.  Because Piaget had grown up hearing the kidnapping story told to him so vividly, he came to believe it with such certainty that he actually remembered witnessing it himself.

Memory, Loftus tell us, is not a video camera that records events and then later plays them back exactly as originally recorded.  Instead, it is an "evolutionary" or evolving process.  Memories are lost and replaced with new memories, Some memories, while retained, change over time and become a pale imitation of the original.  As Loftus points out:

           As new bits and pieces of information are added into long- term memory, the old memories are
           removed, replaced, crumpled up, or shoved into corners.  Little details are added, confusing or
           extraneous elements are deleted, and a coherent construction of the facts is gradually created that
           may bear little resemblance to the original event. 

           Memories don't just fade, as the old saying would have us believe; they also grow.  What fades is
           the initial perception, the actual experience of the events.  But every time we recall an event, we
           must reconstruct the memory, and with each recollection the memory may be changed - colored by
           succeeding events, other people's recollections or suggestions, increased understanding, or a new

           Truth and reality, when seen through the filter of our memories, are not objective facts but
           subjective, interpretative realities.  We interpret the past, correcting ourselves, adding bits and
           pieces, deleting uncomplimentary or disturbing recollections, sweeping, dusting, tidying things up. 
           Thus our representation of the past takes on a living, shifting reality; it is not fixed and
           immutable, not a place way back there that is preserved in stone, but a living thing that changes
           shape, expands, shrinks, and expands again, an ameobalike creature with powers to make us laugh,
           and cry, and clench our fists.  Enormous powers - powers even to make us believe in something
           that never happened.  (p. 20) 

This was an excerpt from this source: