[What follow are excerpts from an article published today on The Guardian website.]
In fact, many hundreds of people have been wrongfully convicted in the UK because juries and those involved in the legal system relied upon "common sense" in considering issues relating to memory. Several thousand case histories have been referred to the British False Memory Society and at least 672 of these are known to have involved the police or higher legal authorities.
It is imperative that those working in the legal system are familiar, at least in general terms, with the way that memory works. Experimental psychologists, following the initial controversy over the veracity of recovered memories back in the 1980s, have developed several reliable techniques to study factors that influence the formation and maintenance of false memories. The studies have proved beyond doubt that false memories can be produced quite readily in susceptible individuals.
Of course, false memories do not only arise in the context of sexual abuse allegations. As Professor Tim Valentine, an expert in psychology and the law at Goldsmiths, University of London, informs me:
"Witnesses' recall can be influenced by information acquired during an investigation. Just repeatedly questioning a witness tends to increase their confidence in both correct and mistaken answers. A shopkeeper who was a key witness in the Lockerbie bomb case was interviewed 20 times by the police, during which he was shown fragments of burnt clothing. He recalled a Libyan customer who had been in the shop nine months previously. Initially he said he did not sell the man any shirts. In court he described selling two shirts to the customer that were similar to fragments of clothing found in the suitcase that contained the bomb. Might this be a false memory induced by questioning about the shirts?"