Imagine spending twenty-four years in prison for a crime you did not commit. Furthermore, imagine that conviction is based on witness testimony and no valid forensic evidence. This is the case for Texas resident Steven Phillips and countless others whose unfortunate circumstances stem from the fallacious nature of human memory. Phillips was wrongly convicted in 1982 based on a few of the many inadequacies of human memory (“Know the Cases”). Unfortunately, this is an all-too-common occurrence due to the high malleability of episodic memory.
In episodic memory, sequences and events are encoded; it is how we remember (or misremember) our lives. It is much more subject to erosion, interference, or suggestion than simple factual memory is. There are many psychological phenomena that interfere with the accuracy of memory, which can cause problems if an altered memory is needed. Specifically in the court of law, accurate memory is immensely important. The fact is, many eyewitnesses do not correctly remember details of the incident in question, and it happens as a result of many different processes.
Why should you care? Well, for one thing, no one wants to be wrongly accused or convicted of a crime he did not commit. As Constitutional-law abiders, we rely on the right to fair trial and the right to have an unbiased jury make judgments on evidence and testimony. It is in all of our best interests, then, to raise awareness of the fallibility of human memory so that if we are ever placed in a situation like Steven Phillips’s, we are not punished due to the mistakes of another. Still not convinced? Look at the other side. Again, as citizens under the Constitution, we must all serve as jurors at some point in our lives. How would you feel if you helped convict a man based on an eyewitness testimony, and twenty-four years down the road you find out that new DNA evidence exonerated him? It is safe to say no one wants that kind of guilt on his conscience. For these reasons it is pertinent to examine memory, its fallibility, and its role in the courtroom.
Before diving into specific problems in memory, it is imperative to understand the basics of memory, which goes through three steps: First, encoding is the process in which the information is initially recorded within neural networks. The next step is storage, in which the encoded information is stored for future use. This leads to retrieval, the final stage, in which information is recalled when necessary (Feldman 209). While the steps sound simple, memory cannot be relied upon like a video recording of an event. “Research has overwhelmingly shown that, contrary to what most people believe, human beings are neither unbiased observers nor veridical recorders” (Haber and Haber 1059), and problems arising in any three of the steps mentioned may result in memory mutation that may have serious implications if called upon in the courtroom.