As Ferguson readies for investigation, witness testimony will be key

False memories can sometimes mar testimony

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Even before a county grand jury starts to hear evidence on Wednesday in the police shooting death of Michael Brown, dueling narratives have emerged. Witnesses said they saw a scuffle between officer Darren Wilson and Brown at the police car before the young man was shot. Several witnesses said Brown raised his hands and was not attacking the officer. Others say Brown was running away from police.

These conflicting memories would be no surprise to forensic psychologist Scott Fraser.  He studies the fallibility of human memory- in particular what’s real and what’s selective when it comes to recollection and crime.

Fraser’s the guy that both defense attorneys and prosecutors call on when they question the veracity of a witness. He studies how we remember crimes and makes the case for implanted memories – the idea that we remember something as a result of “post-experience information.”

In a TED talk in 2012, Fraser told the audience that “all our memories are reconstructed memories. They are the product of what we originally experienced and everything that’s happened afterwards. They’re dynamic.  They’re malleable.  They’re volatile, and as a result, we all need to remember to be cautious, the that accuracy of our memories is not measured in how vivid they are nor how certain you are they’re correct.”

In that talk, Fraser described his involvement in the retrial of the 1992 murder case of Francisco Carrillo. On January 18, 1991, in a community just outside Los Angeles, a father came out of his house to tell his son and his five friends to go home and finish their homework. 

As the father was talking, a car drove by, and a hand reached out firing a gun and killing the father. Francisco Carillo lived three blocks away. Within 24 hours of the murder, the police had identified Carillo as the suspect. The cops collected an array of photos of the boy and the six teenagers who were at the scene of the crime all testified that based on the photos, Carillo was killer. The 17 year-old boy was found guilty and given two life sentences in prison. 

In his TED talk, Fraser makes the case for “reconstructed memories.” Here’s how he defines that concept:

“The brain abhors a vacuum. Under the best of observation conditions, the absolute best, we only detect, encode and store in our brains bits and pieces of the entire experience in front of us, and they're stored in different parts of the brain. So now, when it's important for us to be able to recall what it was that we experienced, we have an incomplete, we have a partial store, and what happens? Below awareness, with no requirement for any kind of motivated processing, the brain fills in information that was not there, not originally stored, from inference, from speculation, from sources of information that came to you, as the observer, after the observation. But it happens without awareness such that you don't, aren't even cognizant of it occurring. It's called reconstructed memories.”

As part of the retrial of Francisco Carillo, Fraser and the team that hired him, staged a re-enactment of the night in question to prove that the testimonies that had put the teen in jail were unreliable. After 20 years serving time for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was freed.

As the investigation into Michael Brown’s death proceeds, and witnesses to the killing go public, it would be good to keep in mind the concept of false memories.  They may happen without awareness but their impact can be severe. 

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