False Memories

What is a “False Memory”?

This is the first in a series of discussions about young children, claims of sexual assault or abuse and the problems associated with memory. These  result from research I’ve conducted over the last three years, defending one particular sexual assault or molestation case as a criminal defense attorney in Orange County, California. 

This series explores the concept of “false memories,” shows how false memories can be created and discussed how criminal defense lawyers can learn to identify statements which may result from a false memory.

Let me start by saying I’m not saying you can’t believe anything a child says. I’m not saying that children are liars. I’m not saying that children should be disbelieved. I’m not saying that you can’t trust any claim of child or sexual abuse.

But, sometimes children are wrong. A young child’s mind is different from an older child’s mind and certainly different from an adult’s mind. And decades of social science has shown that young children can easily come to believe that things happened, which never did in fact, happen. This is called a “false memory.”

With a false memory a child is not telling a lie. He or she genuinely believes the event happened. In fact, experts trained in trying to detect truthful and untruthful statements fared worse than chance (that is, they were wrong more than 50% of the time) when empirically tested in detecting false memories. That is because the indicators that experts normally look for in lie-telling (such as body language changes, voice changes, evasiveness, etc) were absent. They were absent because children genuinely believed they were telling the truth.

The social science around children and memory exploded shortly after the McMartin Preschool trials. The McMartin Preschool trials were the longest and most expensive trials in United States history. The McMartin and Buckley families were accused of ritualistic sexual abuse and the trials lasted six years, resulting in not a single conviction. Allegations became absurd, fantastical and even impossible, but were pursued and prosecuted, nonetheless. The parent-instigator of the hysteria was later determined to be psychotic. Lives were irreparably ruined along the way.

If you or a loved one has been accused of child or sexual abuse and you believe a false memory is involved, call Orange County Criminal Lawyer Staycie R. Sena at 949-477-8088 today.

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