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Problems of false memory with testimony and confessions

New Jersey criminal cases often involve testimony by multiple witnesses and, sometimes, a confession by a criminal defendant. Confessions and eyewitness accounts of events have both been shown to be problematic, as memory is inherently faulty and easily influenced.

A study reported by the Association for Psychological Science demonstrates the extent of the problem. In the study, researchers conducted interviews of 30 students, talking to them about a highly emotional but false crime involving police. Of the 30, researchers were able to plant false memories in 71 percent, or 21 students out of the 30. These 21 students recounted involvement they had had in such false crimes as assault with a weapon, and they also internalized the planted memories as their own.

Researchers indicated certain interview techniques were more likely to encourage the formation of false criminal events. Applications of the research may be especially important for police officers, attorneys and others as people are interviewed and witnesses are prepared for trial. Utilizing bad interview techniques can lead to people falsely confessing. Witnesses may be unintentionally encouraged to remember details that didn't happen. In a large number of wrongful conviction cases in which DNA evidence demonstrates the person was innocent, false confessions were elicited through interrogation.

When people are first arrested on suspicion of committing a crime, police may try to interrogate them. In other cases, officers may suspect a person of a crime but not have enough evidence to support probable cause. They may then try to get the person to come to the station to be interviewed. Since false confessions are a very real problem, it is best that people assert their rights to remain silent. The fact that a person has indicated they do not want to answer any questions and that they would like a criminal defense attorney cannot be used as evidence against them.

Source: Association for Psychological Science, "People Can Be Convinced They Committed a Crime That Never Happened", Jan. 15, 2015

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