Leading the Witness
Contaminated memories and criminal injustice.
Loftus alters Lesley Stahl's eyewitness memory
Her job was to explain how memory errors could contaminate eyewitness testimony. For example, when eyewitnesses were shown lineups of possible culprits, they sometimes selected a face that was familiar for a different reason. Loftus demonstrated this by showing experimental subjects six photos while they listened to a crime story. One photo depicted the culprit; the others depicted innocent characters in the story. Three days later, she showed the same subjects a photo of one of the innocent characters along with three photos of other people. From these four pictures, she asked them to pick the criminal. Twenty-four percent of the subjects correctly refused to pick a photo. Sixteen percent picked one of the three new photos. Sixty percent picked the photo of the innocent character. They remembered it from the crime story but confused it with the perpetrator.
Police lineups worsened this confusion. In another experiment, after watching a mock crime, subjects were offered a lineup that didn't include the perpetrator. One-third of them picked somebody anyway. But when the cops conveyed extra confidence—"We have the culprit and he's in the lineup"—78 percent of the subjects picked somebody.
Then there were prosecutions based on coached child testimony, such as the McMartin Preschool sex-abuse case. To measure children's suggestibility, Loftus and a colleague showed them several one-minute films, followed by leading questions. "Did you see a boat?" they asked one child. Afterward, the child remembered "some boats in the water." "Did you see some candles start the fire?" they asked another. "The candle made the fire," the child said later. Other kids, after being asked about bees and bears, recalled bees and bears. None of these things—bees, bears, boats, candles—were in the films.
Not even Loftus was immune to suggestion. In 1988, after 13 years of testifying about memory's fallibility, she was told by her uncle that she was the one who had found her dead mother in the swimming pool. The sights and sounds of that awful morning came back to her—the corpse face down, the nightgown, the screaming, the stretcher, the police cars. But within three days, her uncle recanted the story, and other relatives confirmed that her aunt, not Loftus, had found the body. The memories of the memory expert were false.
The incident strengthened Loftus' conviction that such recollections shouldn't be trusted in court. The more cases she saw, the more passionate she became about her work. She saw herself as Oskar Schindler, rescuing as many innocent souls as she could. "The beauty I find in helping the falsely accused is something I like about myself," she wrote in an essay years later. "It's the deeper part of who I am."
The passion and the work took their toll. In court, she endured cross-examination and vilification. And at home, her husband gave up competing for her attention. In 1991, they divorced.
But by then, she had a bigger problem.
Next: The Recipe.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Unabomber sketch and photograph courtesy FBI. Son of Sam sketch and photograph courtesy FBI. 60 Minutes clip copyright CBS News. Videos of Marvin Anderson and Alan Nelson courtesy the Innocence Project. All rights reserved.