Unreliability of memory can be problematic in criminal cases in Michigan

Eyewitnesses and people facing criminal charges can be vulnerable to developing inaccurate or false memories, which may contribute to wrongful convictions.

Most people in Grand Rapids know from firsthand experience that memory can be unreliable or vulnerable to manipulation. Despite this fact, the accuracy of memory is often taken for granted in criminal justice proceedings. Unfortunately, eyewitnesses and people accused of crimes may both be susceptible to developing false memories. This may be true even in serious crimes, such as assault or criminal sexual conduct. Sadly, in severe cases, the inaccuracy of memory may lead to wrongful convictions.

Issues with eyewitness memories

The Innocence Projects reports that eyewitness errors are the most common factor in known wrongful convictions. Eyewitness mistakes have played a role in 72 percent of these convictions. Troublingly, these mistakes may occur for various reasons.

At the scene of an alleged crime, many factors may prevent an eyewitness from forming an accurate memory. Lighting and viewing distance may affect how well an eyewitness sees the event. In violent crimes such as homicide, factors such as the stress the eyewitness experienced may reduce the accuracy of the memory.

Police identification protocols can also contribute to eyewitness errors. The following practices may incline eyewitnesses to make incorrect identifications:

  • Poor choice of fillers for line-ups. All non-suspects included in a lineup should bear convincing physical resemblances to the suspect.
  • Failure to administer a blind lineup. To prevent inadvertent influences on eyewitnesses, the overseeing officer should not know the suspect's identity.
  • Use of instructions that bias the eyewitness. Instructions should not imply that the suspect is present or that the investigation will end if an identification is made.

Unfortunately, the risk of inaccurate memories is not unique to eyewitnesses. New research indicates that even people accused of crimes may be prone to develop harmful false memories.

Fabricated memories and false confessions

The Innocence Project states that false confessions play a role in 42 percent of wrongful convictions. Past research has focused on reasons that people might willingly make such confessions. These reasons range from intoxication to a poor understanding of the situation. However, some people may also give false confessions because they have come to believe that they actually are guilty.

In a recent study, researchers managed to convince 70 percent of participants to recall imaginary crimes. The researchers conducted three 40-minute interview sessions in which they asked each participant to recall two events. One event was real, and researchers secured details about that event from other sources before the interviews. The second event, an alleged crime, was fictional.

The researchers only told participants that the second event involved an assault or contact with authorities. They then gently encouraged the participants to remember the event. Over the course of the interviews, many participants generated convincing memories of offenses that they had never committed. This tendency to fabricate memories may also manifest during police interrogations, when authorities provide details about offenses and pressure suspects to confess.

Dangers of false memories

Unfortunately, these issues may contribute to many wrongful convictions in Michigan. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that 55 people have been convicted and exonerated in Michigan. Eyewitness errors contributed to 15 of these convictions, and six more involved false confessions. Even more uncaught wrongful convictions may have been due to these factors.

Given the risk of wrongful convictions, it is important for people facing criminal charges to protect their rights and interests. Meeting with a criminal defense attorney can be an important first step for the accused. An attorney may be able to offer advice on a person's rights and potential options for addressing criminal charges.

Keywords: eyewitness, testimony, wrongful, conviction