by Jayson Hawkins
Eyewitness testimony is often central to criminal trials, and even though the quality of that testimony has repeatedly come under fire in the age of DNA-based exonerations, the value of eyewitness accounts has not diminished. This value stems from the high level of confidence that people — including judges, prosecutors, and jurors — have in the human capacity for accurate recall. Dr. Charles Morgan, a forensic psychiatrist and leading expert on memory, offers a contrary view that argues memories can change or even be manipulated, especially those memories surrounding traumatic events.
Morgan is a Yale graduate who has worked for the CIA and conducted research for the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is currently serving as an expert witness in cases as varied as a Timbuktu war crimes tribunal at the Hague and the terrorism case of an Al-Qaeda suspect who was subjected to waterboarding at Guantanamo Bay. He worked on the case of Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who was held captive by the Taliban and accused of desertion, and Robert Bales, the soldier who killed 17 women and children in Afghanistan.
Morgan’s research and experience have led him to a conclusion that challenges the very basis of eyewitness testimony. In a variety of papers published over 25 years, he has consistently shown that memories can change, in particular those associated with trauma.
“We used to think that when you make a memory,” Morgan explains, “you take the data in and the data are then encoded and switch from short to long term. We thought that, when you want a memory back, it’s like a librarian going to retrieve it. We know now that’s not correct. You can affect a memory as it’s getting into your brain and when it is in storage. It can be modified by your life experiences in the meantime. It’s put back together and reconstructed when you pull it up.”
The research Morgan has published shows that even military personnel trained to be resilient under stress can have their memories altered or manipulated, sometimes by something as simple as how a question is worded or interrupting an interview with food. High stress, regardless of whether it revolves around the incident or subsequent interrogation, can also affect memory.
Morgan has found that “memories will have feelings attached to them, and they may be very vivid. People tend to believe them, but it doesn’t mean that they’re true.”
A considerable portion of Morgan’s research revolves around memories that carry weight in a courtroom, especially ones involving faces and physical descriptions. Research has shown that even though people learn to recognize faces from an early age, we are not generally good at remembering a face seen briefly and under stress. People also struggle to remember small details, like eye color, that are critical to positively identifying a suspect.
“I think it’s a significant hurdle to try to help educate the courts,” Morgan said. “A memory might be corrupted, like a corrupted file on your computer, you just don’t get a warning about it.”
The implications of Morgan’s research go far beyond the high-profile cases listed above. The basis for a huge number of criminal cases is the testimony of eyewitnesses, many of whom were victims traumatized by the incident. If these memories are called into question, then the foundation of countless convictions and alibis must also be questioned. Perhaps this research can explain how, even when DNA exonerates a suspect, an eyewitness will stand by their story.
Another problem is the confidence people put in their own memories and the lack of faith placed in someone else’s recall. Even worse, humans tend to give credence to what conforms to our beliefs and discount anything that runs counter to our view of the world.
“We probably all have false memories,” Morgan said. “It’s just that we’re not involved in a criminal justice or an intelligence system that’s making us scrutinize everything we say we remember. We’re kind of oblivious to what we don’t remember.”
The implications for the criminal justice system are enormous.
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login