Thursday 27 October 2016

A vague, ill-defined memory

[What follows is the text of an article that appeared in the Malta Independent newspaper on this date in 2009:]

Prof David Canter, a director of The Centre for Investigative Psychology at the University of Liverpool, is questioning the veracity of Anthony Gauci’s testimony during the Lockerbie trial and has published an extensive report based on the proceedings.

Mr Gauci was a key witness in the trial which condemned former Libyan intelligence officer, Abdel Baset Ali al-Megrahi, as the perpetrator of the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland, in December 1998.

Writing in The Times (UK) yesterday, Prof Canter asserted that many studies have raised doubts on the psychology of memory about witness testimony and the evidence crucial to condemn Mr al-Megrahi was probably based on a vague memory that somehow became convincing enough for the court to convict.

In his report, Prof Canter explains that there are two distinct aspects of Mr Gauci’s memories that can be considered in the light of what is now known of the psychology of memory. This is the synopsis of his report: “One is the recall of the alleged event in his shop and the details of what happened then. The other is his alleged recognition of Mr Megrahi as a person who had come into his shop. These are rather different aspects of memory, but in both cases Prof Canter considers there are grounds for doubting that the recall or recognition are of the events or person as Mr Gauci claims.

Mr Gauci’s reported memory is of one particular customer and sales event out of many others, recalled, initially, at a point 10 months after the alleged event had occurred. In the absence of any particular features, at the time the event happened, that would render the event highly distinctive or emotionally significant to Mr Gauci, the scientific understanding of the rapid decay of human memory soon after the event being remembered would suggest that it is extremely unlikely the details of such a memory are accurate. The decay of memory is also inconsistent with any claims that in court, 10 years after the incident, Mr Gauci could have a more accurate memory than closer to the time of the event.

As well as memory for the event being unlikely, recognition of the individual alleged to be involved and the accurate identification, in such circumstances, of a strange individual more than two years later, is highly unlikely.

The uninformed view that memory is open to improvement after the initial event by simple, effortful thinking on subsequent occasions is not supported by scientific research. Enrichment of the details of what is remembered is only possible by intensive psychological techniques including context reinstatement, which were not utilised in relation to the central features of this case. Furthermore, such improvements tend towards providing additional detail rather than contradicting earlier accounts. Therefore the inconsistencies in Mr Gauci’s testimony, that include a number of changes in details of alleged fact, across the 17 statements examined, are more in accord with a vague memory that Mr Gauci is keen to make clearer than the developing of a more accurate memory of an actual incident.

It is now well established by psychologists that what a witness genuinely claims to remember, with confidence, is open to influence from various sources that will lead to distortions in the actual memory, such as implicitly leading questioning and prior exposure in relation to material that could influence identification of a suspect. So, although working with limited material that provides little information on the police interview process, I do consider that the variations and inconsistencies in Mr Gauci’s accounts of what he remembers are in accord with the recognised processes of influence on memory.

The processes at play in the present case are probably more powerful because of Mr Gauci’s apparent desire to please and his recognition of the importance of his testimony. This could give rise to a phenomenon known as the reduction of ‘cognitive dissonance’ in which a person adjusts his cognitions to accord with his actions. In this case unconsciously adjusting his confidence in his opinion to make it coherent with his commitment to helping the police enquiry.

Of particular importance in influencing Mr Gauci’s identification evidence is the possibility of his memory of who he claims was in his shop having been distorted by his prior exposure to Mr Megrahi in other situations. This is a process which psychologists refer to as ‘unconscious transference’, whereby witnesses remember a person but not the context within which they saw that person, then wrongly assign the person to the context in question. It is also possible that aspects of the administration of the line up procedure, as well as dock-based identification, can have an influence that would also distort what Mr Gauci thought he remembered.

A further challenge to the accuracy of Mr Gauci’s recognition of Mr Megrahi as a man who came into his shop and bought items as alleged is that Mr Gauci positively identified two other men as the individual involved in the alleged incident. For a memory of the person to be clear at a period of months after the incident it would not be expected that a different person would be identified at some point. Such confusions are more consistent with an ambiguous and vague memory that has been unwittingly influenced by external sources.

It does seem possible that at various points in the police enquiry Mr Gauci may have identified up to six different people, at least, as the person who had been to his shop on the day in question in late 1988. It is difficult to know from the information available whether the various identifications were of the same or different people. Such a mixture of apparent recognitions is consistent with a vague, ill-defined memory rather than with the confident claims eventually made in court.

This leads me to the general view that Mr Gauci does not have a distinct memory of the particular incident described. Rather it is suggested the account he provides is constructed, innocently, in attempting to help police, by a witness unaware of the limitations of human memory and police officers unaware of the possible subtle influences of the interviewing and related processes that they used. It probably draws on disparate recollections of different individuals, sales and customer behaviours, drawn together in an account that is then shaped by a variety of recognised influences on memory.”

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