UC Irvine social ecology professor Elizabeth Loftus has testified in some of the nation’s top court cases because of findings from her research into human memory.
During the recent trial of Paul Shanley, a Massachusetts priest convicted of acts of sexual molestation that occurred two decades ago, the defense attorney called Loftus as the sole witness to testify on Shanley’s behalf.
As a professor of psychology and social behavior in the School of Social Ecology, Loftus explained her interests in the field of human memory.
‘I am particularly interested in how people come to believe or remember that they had experiences that they didn’t have,’ Loftus said.
Because Loftus’ studies explain how false memories could shape witness testimony, defense attorneys from other high-profile cases, such as those of Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart, have sought her consultation.
Loftus’ early research looked at false details in people’s memories.
‘In these experiments, we showed that you could change memories of the details of events fairly easily just by asking a leading question that insinuated the … misinformation,’ Loftus said.
In the 1990s, Loftus began to explore the possibility of planting an entirely false memory into someone’s mind, a process which, Loftus found, could have lasting consequences.
‘If I make you believe that you were bitten by a dog when you were little, the consequence would be that later on you decide you don’t like dogs very much and you would rather have a cat as a pet,’ Loftus said.
According to Loftus, factors, such as leading questions, other witness’ incorrect testimonies or sensationalized media coverage can easily sway a witness’ perception of his or her experience.
Since she began researching human memory, Loftus sought to apply her knowledge in practical ways.
‘I wanted to do some work that had social relevance,’ Loftus said.
Her interest in legal issues led her to look at memories of witnesses in court cases. Loftus started volunteering in legal cases, lending her knowledge in exchange for an opportunity to see how her theories applied to actual cases.
‘I want to be able to see, close up, real witnesses in real cases, watching their real interactions,’ Loftus said.
After she began publishing her analyses of legal cases, requests for her consultation poured into her office.
One of her career highlights was a case she worked on of a homeless Orange County man, Eric Nordmark, who was accused of sexually molesting three minors in 2004. It was later revealed that the accusers had fabricated the entire story.
‘It gives me a great sense of pride to be able to help the [downtrodden] and the disadvantaged, the struggling and the miserable falsely-accused people,’ Loftus said.
Loftus enjoys working on legal cases and believes that they enrich her teachings and scholarship.
‘When you are trying to teach these scientific findings to students or even teach them to the readers of your articles, having real cases where these issues and ideas apply just brings the whole thing … alive,’ Loftus said.
Loftus’ testimony in legal cases does not always convince the jurors as successfully as the lawyers who employed her intended.
In the Shanley case, the evidence presented by the prosecution proved more convincing to the jury than Loftus’ testimony.
Loftus said that the prosecutor in that case was well-prepared and carried out a vigorous cross-examination. She also believed that the jurors were overwhelmed by the accuser’s emotions and ignored the fact that ‘people can be very emotional even over false memories.’
Moreover, Loftus says that her experience in the scholarly world does not always carry over into the legal system.
‘I am used to fighting clean, academic fights, duking it out in the pages of a scientific journal,’ Loftus said. ‘But when you get into those real-life cases with some of those people who harbor beliefs that, I think, are unsupported by science and they are so wrapped up in their belief of every accusation no matter how dubious it is, they fight dirty.’