Memory, Falsity and Justice

September 26, 2012 § Leave a comment

A recent study by scholars at Northwestern has found that memories tend to deteriorate, not improve and solidify, with each iteration of remembrance. I can’t say that this is unexpected, or that the proposition is particularly novel (I completed a capstone class on memory three years ago, the thesis of which was this exact point: memories change and slowly loose their grasp on ‘Truth’), but this study provides the first empirical evidence of an otherwise largely philosophical concept…and  that is always exciting. In terms of legal justice, however, the implications may also be disturbing. “‘Maybe a witness remembers something fairly accurately the first time because his memories aren’t that distorted…After that it keeps going downhill” say the authors of the study. What does this mean for cases like  Reggie Clemons‘, which have been protracted for decades without resolution, if not for those cases that have merely passed through the  typically long processes of proceedings, processes and litigation that the US justice system demands?

Anyone who has studied the intricacies of a courtroom, or witnessed the tiny point upon which a verdict can spin, knows that such faults in memory can be fatal (metaphorically and literally in the US). Similar findings (such as the ability to plant false memories) have been and will continue to be discussed and studied. They are the fodder of theoretical and practical debate, and it will be interesting to see what implications they have on courtroom practice going forward. Will witness testimonies continue to be weighted less and less in the verdict, if not dismissed completely? Will we count this a good thing? Will there be exceptions? Are there already? And what of post-conflict courts such as the ICC? The implications could be massive.

Human nature hunts for truth–personally and collectively–but it always seems to get more complex the more you look for it.


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