Reconstructive memory is the psychological theory that refers to the process of recalling a particular event. It involves connecting fragments of information from a person’s experience of the event with stored knowledge of similar occurrences and cultural influences. The person combines all the information they can retrieve from memory into an intelligible view of the past incident they are trying to remember.
What is the role of reconstructive memory in criminal defense?
Reconstructive memory is crucial in understanding how eyewitnesses remember crimes and the people involved. Because ordinary human memory is prone to lapses and errors, eyewitness testimonies are not always as reliable as they seem. Eyewitnesses will try to provide their account of a crime, but because they need to reconstruct their memory to create a cohesive narrative, significant information may become subjective. They cannot recall every detail and might rely on schemas and scripts to fill the gaps.
Schemas and scripts are a person’s stored knowledge of similar events. A schema can affect how a person believes a stereotypical criminal would look or behave. A script can change how a person thinks a crime unfolded based on their own preconceived notions. Schemas and scripts can influence the reconstructive memory of an eyewitness.
Reconstructive memory can send an innocent person to jail
Eyewitness testimonies could send an innocent person behind bars, even if they had no connection to the crime. An eyewitness might choose the wrong person in a police lineup because the person matches their idea of what a criminal looks like. They might tell a story differently and implicate the wrong person. The problem is that eyewitnesses trust their reconstructive memory, making them even more credible and believable in court.
Wrongful convictions should not happen. A person should only go to jail if the facts prove they committed the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. A conviction should not depend on human memory.