We are expected to hear today from Professor Christine Blasey Ford about how she was sexually attacked by U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh 36 years ago when they were both teenagers.
The story has become even more complicated, however, now that a third woman has said she attended parties with Kavanaugh where there were gang rapes. But while the media and Judiciary Committee staff sort though the allegations, the focus today will be on the testimony of Professor Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh.
Without corroborating evidence or testimony to support one version or the other, we may be left with “she said, he said.” That will not necessarily mean either person is lying.
As attorney Tom Kirby writes in the Weekly Standard, “More often than most of us realize, honest witnesses sincerely swear to things they vividly recall but simply are not true. When events are long past, memory errors become very common, even for dramatic events seared into our memories like a flashbulb going off. Human memory is a very tricky thing, and our memories get worse with the passage of time.”
That is not just Kirby’s opinion. Researchers have studied the vagaries of memory extensively and reached a similar conclusion—we don’t always remember events exactly how they happened.
The National Research Council reviewed research of victim and eyewitness testimony in criminal cases and concluded that “Eyewitness identifications play an important role in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, but they have also led to erroneous convictions.”
The researchers found that a number of factors can impact witness memory—“dim illumination and brief viewing times, large viewing distances, duress, elevated emotions, and the presence of a visually distracting element such as a gun or a knife.”
Gaps in memory may be filled in by other memories. “Prior experiences are capable of biasing the visual perceptual experience and reinforcing an individual’s conception of what was seen,” the report said.
Advances in DNA testing have revealed serious flaws in relying on eyewitness and victim identification. The National Research Council report found that “In the United States, more than 300 exonerations have resulted from post-conviction DNA testing since 1989. According to the Innocence Project at least one mistaken eyewitness identification was present in almost three-quarters of DNA exonerations.”
None of this is to suggest that Dr. Blasey is lying. The assault may have happened exactly as she has described, and presumably will testify to in greater detail today. It is also possible that Judge Kavanaugh’s memory of the alleged event is flawed, especially if he was drunk. Research shows that short term memory is particularly affected by alcohol.
Law enforcement is always after additional evidence because of the established flaws of memory. As The National Research Council concludes, “The fidelity of our memories to actual events may be compromised by many factors at all stages of processing, from encoding to storage to retrieval.”
It is quite possible that when Dr. Blasey and Judge Kavanaugh testify today they both will be telling the truth… at least as each remembers it.