Research Shows that False Memories in Sex Crimes Cases Can Lead to Wrongful Convictions

Charges for criminal sexual conduct cases, more commonly called sex crimes or sexual assault, are often based only on the memories of the complaining witness. This is especially true for sexual assault that allegedly took place when the adult victim was a child.  In these sex crimes cases there is no physical evidence, and the guilt of the accused rests entirely on the veracity of the witness’s statements and testimony. The problem is that the allegations of criminal sexual conduct can be based on totally false memories.

A new article written by an international team of researchers suggests that false memories can be reversed.  According to the article, false memories cause many problems, not the least of which is false criminal allegations.  The existence of false memories has been shown by many prior studies, and the contribution of this new study is that with the right kind of interviewing false memories can be supplanted by true memories.

To understand how this would all play out in a Michigan sex crimes case, the investigation of a sex crime usually begins with a report made to a police department.  The initial report will inevitably be based on a recollection of past events, in this case some kind of sexual trauma or abuse. The case might then be assigned to a detective, who is likely to seek a second interview of the complaining witness, a/k/a victim. Depending on the age of the complaining witness, a forensic interview may follow.

While on the one hand it may be concluded that multiple interviews of the same person help to weed out false accusations because it can be difficult for a person who is lying to stay consistent, according to this article, repeated interviews actually helps to reinforce the false memory, making the complaining witness that much more adamant that the memories recounted actually happened.

The researchers recruited 52 participants for a study on ‘childhood memories’ and with the help of parents, they implanted two false negative memories that definitely didn’t happen, but were plausible. For example getting lost, running away or being involved in a car accident.

Along with two true events, which had actually happened, participants were persuaded by their parents that all four events were part of their autobiographical memory.

The participants were then asked to recall each event in multiple interview sessions. By the third session, most believed the false events had happened and — like previous research — about 40 per cent had developed actual false memories of them.

The researchers from Germany and the U.K. recruited 52 volunteers to study childhood memories.  These test subjects were then implanted with 2 false memories each. One true memory was also utilized. The false memories were about things like getting lost, running away or being sick.  The youngster’s parents were involved in planting these false memories.  Each subject was then interviewed about the false memories on multiple occasions and by the third interview, most of the children believed the false event actually happened. These findings comport with many other studies on the subject.

The goal of the research however was to determine if and how such false memories could be undone.  The research protocol provided two methods to accomplish this, the first was for the interviewers to, during the questioning, remind the children that their memories may not have been based on their own experience but instead on secondary evidence, such as another person’s narrative, such as from a family member.  Another secondary source might be a photograph or memento. The researchers then asked the participants if such secondary sources existed in support of their memories.

The conclusion was that by doing one or both things, a person could then identify the false memory and understand that it was false.  Most importantly, according to the research, doing this does not impact true memories, that is, memories of things that actually did happen.

This research is important because it helps to show how common police interview techniques may actually help to reinforce rather than diminish false memories.

It is not uncommon for a vindicative spouse, perhaps during a divorce proceeding, to manufacture allegations of sexual abuse of one or more of the children. In such a case the spouse, let’s use the mother as an example, tells the child that they were sexually abused. These mother/child discussions might happen on more than one occasion, which then helps to set the stage for the implant of the false memory.  Later, the child is likely to be interviewed several more times before charges are actually brought against the husband, all of which further reinforces the child’s belief that the made up false sexual abuse actually did happen.

One or more interview might be by child protective services workers in concert with police investigators.  A petition for child neglect or abuse may then be filed seeking termination of the parental rights.  This legal matter might involve the child testifying, perhaps on more than one occasion, before the charges for the criminal sexual conduct have even started, all of which further reinforces the false memory.

Consequently, these false memories can result in termination of parental right and in a worst case scenario, a wrongful conviction for a crime carrying a 25-year mandatory minimum, as might be the case with a Michigan CSC first degree charge.

Thankfully, there is a way to defend against such false accusations, and this begins with finding and retaining a Michigan sex crimes lawyer well versed in the scientific literature as well as police procedures, such as forensic interviewing techniques. Knowing what to look for and how to defend against false memories can be the difference before being acquitted or wrongfully convicted of a Michigan sex crime.

If you are being falsely accused of a sexual assault, contact one of the Michigan sex crimes lawyers at the Barone Defense Firm. We will evaluate your case and give you our preliminary assessment of it, all free of charge.  Call the Barone Defense Firm today.


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