April 7, 2014

Do Our Minds Play Tricks On Us...

Memory is a funny thing. Details and experiences are so ingrained in our minds that we move through life certain that we recall past events exactly as they occurred. Although, we hear time and time again that when asked, groups of people recall specifics with a completely different lens after observing the exact same occurrence. As time goes by, our experiences are reiterated with the same narrative and cadence; further solidifying the specifics in our minds. Real to the person who claims to have experienced the event, and real to those who are the recipients of the story.

Last month I came across a Ted Talk that discussed this exact issue. Elizabeth Loftus is an expert in memory. Not maintaining memory, but rather, the study of fictional memories. She specifically discusses a case that took place in Seattle where a man was wrongly accused of a crime simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all because the eye witness thought she recalled his face and vehicle near the scene of a brutal rape. Although, it turns out that the eye witness was wrong. Initially, she said that he was the closest, while looking at her choices in a police line up.  By the time the case went to trial, she claimed absolutely positively that he was the man she saw at the scene of the crime. Why? Because the story had become factual after repeating it over and over again. By the time she took the stand as the only eye witness, she had probably repeated her statement hundreds of times. Although, as you can see by the vignette posted below, it was a fictitious account of the events as they occurred. Not intentionally, but rather a story that essentially evolved over time, eventually solidifying the details through repetition.

I was reminded of a man, who was in my high school class. I didn't know him well, but I recall that he was smart and reserved. I remember being shocked after reading that he had been convicted of a horrific crime in our hometown of Salem, Oregon. It ended up being another example of wrong place wrong time. And sadly, he spent over a decade in prison before a local journalist turned private investigator proved that he was innocent of the triple homicide.

This case was slightly different than the case in Seattle. Turns out the owner of the property where the triple murder occurred was the prosecution's star witness. Her story, which later appeared to be just that, drew the eyes of the authorities away from the actual facts, and conveniently to an innocent man.

In 2010, Dateline NBC did an in depth story on this case called The House on Murder Mountain. It was like watching a movie of the week. Yet it was an actual account of the story, making me terrified to think that inadvertently being at the wrong place at the wrong time, coupled with a viable story from an "eye witness", could change the course of an innocent life.

As the study of DNA and forensic science continues to advance, a fictitious account, whether intentional or unintentional, is oftentimes discredited. Although, sans any viable DNA, our police and prosecutors have no choice but to rely on witness statements. A task that I would not want to be responsible for as a witness or depend on from others as an innocent defendant.


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