Incorporating Elizabeth Loftus's Research on Memory into Reforms to Protect the Innocent
Do Justice and Let the Sky Fall: Elizabeth F. Loftus and Her Contributions to Science, Law, and Academic Freedom 171-91 (Maryanne Garry & Harlene Hayne eds., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 2006).
21 Pages Posted: 29 May 2014
Date Written: 2005
More than any other scholar in the field of psychology, Elizabeth Loftus has focused her extraordinary career on how various influences on memory can affect the accuracy of the legal system's decision-making process. Although the reasons for wrongful convictions are multifaceted, errors caused by the malleability of human memory play a prominent role in conviction of the innocent. Every study of wrongful convictions has found that mistaken eyewitness identification is a leading cause of conviction of the innocent.
In this chapter, I discuss in more detail how the research and scholarship of Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues has contributed to understanding the causes of wrongful convictions and to the mission of preventing erroneous convictions. First, I provide an overview of the history and research on wrongful convictions. Next, I examine the legal system's current theory of how memory works and discuss problems associated with eyewitness identification and repressed memories within the context of two case histories. I use the cases to highlight the importance of educating participants in the legal system about the malleability of memory and its adverse consequences on innocent defendants. Finally, I outline reforms that focus on changing the methods by which eyewitness evidence is gathered and changing the legal standards for admissibility of memory evidence. The primary challenge will be to take what has been learned from the invaluable contributions of Elizabeth Loftus and her colleagues and apply those findings toward changing the system in an effort to prevent conviction of the innocent.
Keywords: psychology, evidence, eyewitness identification, wrongful convictions, memory, repressed memories, criminal investigations, law enforcement
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