Study: The wrongly accused may be vulnerable to forming false memories

A study suggests that innocent people can form detailed memories of crimes they didn’t commit, even if they don’t face aggressive interrogation tactics.

Many people in Clemson have heard stories of wrongly accused people maintaining their innocence until favorable evidence comes to light. It seems reasonable to believe that most people in this position would defend themselves with similar vigor. Sadly, though, this may be the exception, rather than the norm.

False confessions are known to be fairly common. The Innocence Project states that over one-quarter of people who have been exonerated through DNA evidence originally gave false confessions. Troublingly, new research indicates that innocent people can develop false memories, even of serious incidents such as violent crimes. This could contribute to unwitting false confessions and significant long-term consequences.

Testing memory

According to The Toronto Star, researchers recently performed an experiment with 70 student participants. Over the course of three interviews, which lasted about 40 minutes each, the researchers asked participants about memories from their adolescence.

Unbeknownst to the participants, the researchers had spoken to each participant's caretaker before the interviews. The researchers gathered details about a real event that occurred during each participant's life. The, during the interviews, the researchers offered real details about the event and asked participants to recall it. The researchers also asked the participants to recall a second event, which was a fictional crime.

Fabricated recollections

The researchers were intentionally vague about this crime. They mentioned that it involved assault or brought participants into contact with authorities. The researchers reassured the participants that the event had really occurred. They also told the participants that the memory would come back if they tried to remember or visualize it. At the end of the study, the researchers reported the following disturbing results:

  • About 70 percent of the students "remembered" committing crimes.
  • These students described elaborate memories and displayed emotions such as guilt.
  • Even after students were told about the setup of the experiment, some insisted that they truly had committed crimes.

These findings are troubling in light of a few facts. First, participants developed false memories in relatively little time and under little duress. People facing real criminal accusations may be subjected to more aggressive, prolonged interrogations. Additionally, researchers only asked participants to recall events that had "occurred" five years ago. Authorities may accuse criminal suspects of crimes that happened even further back, which may raise the risk of inaccurate memories developing.

Monitoring interrogations

The Innocence Project notes that recording custodial interrogations can reduce the risk of false confessions resulting in wrongful convictions. A recording allows third parties to objectively review an interrogation for coercion, leading tactics or other inappropriate practices. A recording may also reveal whether a person may have given a false confession while in an impaired state.

In 2013, South Carolina lawmakers considered a bill that would mandate the recording of certain aspects of custodial interrogations. Unfortunately, the bill failed to pass. This may leave people facing criminal charges in the state at risk for developing false memories or delivering false confessions.

Protecting legal rights

Given the risk of false confessions, anyone facing criminal charges should consider consulting with a defense attorney. An attorney may help a person understand his or her rights and legal options throughout the criminal justice process.

Keywords: false, confession, wrongful, conviction, arrest