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False Memories in Criminal Justice

Updated on July 6, 2017

In the past, false statements have led to a wrongful convention and eventual imprisonment of innocent people, according to Loftus, a psychologist and memory expert, over 300 individuals have been wrongly accused by the courts in the United States alone. The author deduces evidence from studies, and she performed in the past about false memories articulating the easiness of implanting a false memory on a person’s mind regardless of their gender age or status in life. An example is a particular experiment on the “Lost in the Mall” technique, where Loftus established that 25% of the test subjects believed the false memories were real.

The power of suggestion can play a role in interview contamination. In this regard, suggestive information can be implanted in a witness’s mind (Loftus, & Ketchan, 1996). For instance, during an interview, the police detective can pose a question to the witness that will alter their thinking if the detective, asks how fast the blue Mercedes truck was moving? The effect of this is, triggers the witness’s memory to think about the blue car directly, even though they might not be thinking of the car in the first place, but they have an idea that the vehicle was a truck. Accordingly, the witness will potentially fall for the detective’s trick as he or she accepts the memory implanted in his/her mind.

According to the FBI report (FBI, 2003), interview contamination occurs when detectives negatively influence the discussion, consequently making the witness to provide inaccurate information. The implications can subsequently block the witness’s memory from fully disclosing what they know. As a result, preventing the detective’s search for the real truth. Two of the most important practices that a detective should remember to use are discussed below.

1. Do not lead the witness in an interview. - As seen from the earlier discussion,(FBI, 2003), leading the witness on, plants false memories in their brain. As a result, the witness statement cannot be reliable, because the mixing of false memories and the real one blurs their memory causing the witness to doubt themselves.

2. Investigator bias. -Witness coaching should be avoided at all cost, coaching a witness into believing what is not true, by helping them to identify a wrong suspect.

Use of open-ended question during witness interview is one of the ways to avoid interview contamination. According to Sandoval, (2003), this technique minimizes the risk of interviewers imposing their opinion of what may have happened on the witness. (FBI, 2003), the method also employs the use of psychology of active listening, where broad inquiries are carried out to gather as much information as they possibly can. An example of an open-ended question would be, Tell me what happened? The questions encourage the witness to speak their minds out without being influenced; as a result, the investigator bias is minimized.

The open-ended technique is a useful tool when gathering information, especially when dealing with a fragile mind. The witness should be encouraged to say what they know, what they saw or did not see. Close-ended questions technique is another way of making sure the investigator avoids bias interview and at the same time, forming collaborative information about the subject matter. The method elicits more narrowly defined responses from the witness like yes or no and other brief answers. The closed questions that are short and direct help the interviewer elicit details from the subject (FBI 2003).

In conclusion, all interviewing techniques should be handled with care, concern, mindfulness of culture among other factors that have a potential to act as misguiding cues that could play a role in the deception. That said, the interviewer should be taking care of how they handle a witness. They should build a rapport, listening to what their witness has to say, respect them; and try as much as they can to clarify that which is not understood by employing the open-ended-questions technique. Also, the investigator should always uphold professional standards and try to remain non-judgmental all through the interview, and try gathering information from the witness without clouding their thoughts.


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