Lawsuit Reform

Is Memory Manipulation a Threat to Your State’s Legal System?

Dr. Julia Shaw convinced 70 percent of participants in her study published last year they committed a crime they never actually committed.

Up until recently, scientists thought memories were static, merely recalled in the mind and never changed. However, studies over the last 20 years have shown that memories can be altered each time they’re recalled. They are not just chapters to check out of the brain library and read. The brain re-experiences the chapter each time it’s read and can change the text.

In Dr. Shaw’s study, she spoke with participants about real experiences they had and fed them false information allegedly from an acquaintance expanding the experience to include the committing of a crime. After just a couple hours, 70 percent of participants were “remembering” new details about crimes they never actually committed. It’s important to note that while one study is under way to attempt to duplicate this study, it has not yet been successfully replicated as necessitated by the scientific method to confirm the data’s reliability. However, if replicated, the implications are concerning.

When considered in the context of our justice system, there are worrisome possibilities. As time progresses and lawsuits drag on, memories fade and change. It does not take intentional memory manipulation like in Shaw’s study for this to happen.

With the development of more reliable DNA testing, a growing group of criminal convictions are being reevaluated, and at times overturned, for accuracy. In the case of the Central Park Five, who confessed to and were convicted of raping a woman in Central Park, DNA evidence alongside a confession from a serial rapist proved the Five were innocent despite their supposed recollection.

It might be difficult to see how someone could be convinced to admit to a crime they never committed, but the prevailing scientific understanding of memory in the brain confirms that when memories interact with the brain they can and do get changed. Shaw’s application thereof illustrates how memory re-experience may actually be used to manipulate individuals to believe false claims.

One would expect it to be even easier to convince a third party of someone else’s guilt than of their own guilt. An outsider, perhaps a witness of a crime, could be convinced of different details than they initially saw. After someone witnesses a crime, they see a news report that might speculate about the circumstances of the crime or even report inaccurate information. As the witness rethinks what they witnessed, their mind may start to mold their memory to better fit the expectations of the news report.

Public outcry, subjective media reporting and prodding law enforcement questioning could convince the innocent of self-guilt or the witness of unwitnessed facts.

As time passes, there are more opportunities for memories to fade and incorrect “facts” to come to mind. Criminal and civil lawsuits may take years to come to conclusion. Speedy claims resolution and narrowed timelines for filing suit after injury are key to maximizing witness accuracy and delivering reliable justice.

When lawsuits are filed decades after an injury, witness memory becomes unreliable. As witness testimony is often the most influential factor in a case, accuracy is of utmost importance. Placing reasonable limitations on the time frame for lawsuits safeguards against muddled memory and legal injustice.

The ALEC website has information about which states place reasonable time limits on lawsuits in product liability litigation, a field of litigation that relies heavily on testimony. Fewer than half of states do.

In a system where Americans protect liberty first and assume innocent until proven guilty, a guilty verdict should reflect a guilty defendant. Pure and unaltered witness testimony is essential to accurate justice and to keeping the state from usurping the freedoms of the innocent.

In Depth: Lawsuit Reform

State legal systems and the liability they exert on businesses and individuals are a disincentive to bad behavior and allow fair players to succeed in the marketplace. When lawsuits inappropriately punish good actors, resources are sucked out of the business economy, away from research & development and job creation. Lawsuit…

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