False Memories Impact Cops, Courts & Convictions




Every cop, judge, lawyer, cop and law student should know that eyewitness testimony is the weakest evidence presented in a court.

Memories are imperfect, malleable and often totally wrong.

That was proven to me again today. I was again confronted with somebody who claimed to see something that never occurred.

I was walking early in this morning, wearing an old t-shirt. The shirt has “Fred Schulte Morgue Tour 2003” emblazoned across the front.



Buddy and his shirt (I’ve deliberately lost weight since 2003.)



“I saw that guy play when I was in college in Gainesville,” some stranger said to me.

No, he didn’t.

The shirt does not commemorate a rock show. The shirt was created at the Sun-Sentinel to celebrate an award-winning series by journalist Fred Schulte.

The series was terrific. Schulte traveled to 15 morgues throughout Florida to document an epidemic of deaths caused by the misuse of prescription drugs.

The investigative journalist, who now works for Kaiser Health News in Washington, worked eight months documenting the deaths.

Schulte made a lot of waves with his series. But with a word processor, not a guitar.



Fred Schulte



Still, I have been confronted by several people who swear they saw Schulte in a rock show during the 13 years I have worn that shirt.

It is not that these people are crazy. They are just human and human brains create false memories all the time.

Elizabeth Loftus, a false memory researcher at the University of California, warns, “Just because someone tells you something with a lot of confidence and detail and emotion, it doesn’t mean it actually happened. You need independent corroboration to know whether you’re dealing with an authentic memory, or something that is a product of some other process.”

Or as Julie Shaw, a researcher at London South Bank University and author of the just published book “The Memory Illusion,” writes: “Memory is incredibly malleable.”

The effects of imperfect memories impacts our criminal justice system daily.

The Innocence Project uses DNA to overturn wrongful convictions.  Roughly two-thirds of those hundred of overturned convictions were the result of eyewitness testimony.

Then there was the wave of highly publicized child abuse charges in the 1980s based on false memories, such as the McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles.

Folks in the criminal justice system should tattoo this on their arm.  It is from Chris French a researcher from University of London, in Scientific American:

There is currently no way to distinguish, in the absence of independent evidence, whether a particular memory is true or false. Even memories which are detailed and vivid and held with 100 percent conviction can be completely false.”

My take away:

Sorry Fred, but I think I’ll get a new shirt. Maybe one from an actual rock group.

7 Responses to “False Memories Impact Cops, Courts & Convictions”

  1. disgruntled says:

    buddy your headline has very little to do with your story, but it has a much greater sensational aspect. look hes mistaken as an incident that occurred years ago ergo all cops witnesses must also be wrong, does your son really work for help me howard , sounds like something Howie would either write or dictate, surely eyewitness testimony can be fallible that’s why a trial has cross examination etc, and hopefully the truth outs..

  2. Tom Quinn says:

    Very much on point. We see what we want to see and our lens is covered by our past experiences and biases. BTW congrats on loosing the pounds.

  3. SAM FIELDS says:

    For anyone who wants to learn about how bad eyewitness testimony is I suggest you see the five minute piece from The Innocence Project http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes/eyewitness-misidentification/

    In 75% of convictions overturned by DNA the wrongful convictions were based on eyewitness testimony.

    And if wrongful convictions based on misidentifications is scary, consider that in 20% of the cases overturned by DNA the police had procured a confession.

    Case in point is are The Central Park Five who were coerced into confessing to a gang rape that DNA evidence proved they did not do.

    Notwithstanding the DNA evidence, that asshole just elected Prez still insists they did it.

    I hope they sue the shit out of him for defamation.

  4. GL says:

    Eyewitness testimony is extremely unreliable and most are unaware of just how unreliable it is, especially when called to testify months or years after the fact.

    Good link by Sam above to the innocence project page addressing this.

  5. Count LF Chodkiewicz Chudzikiewicz says:

    1. Peoples relatives are irrevelant
    2. Counsellor Fields is right AND DID NOT ATTACK OUR FINEST

  6. Scott says:

    If I saw you looking like that picture, I’d say you looked a hell of a lot like Bill Murray.

  7. Disgusted says:

    Sam, were you part of the investigation of the Central Park case? Didn’t think so. BTW, I was and no one was coerced. They were guilty. That azzhole just elected president is probably the best thing that happened to MY country now that your racist Kenyan is out.