Experts: Chaos, stress can affect the ways eyewitnesses remember a situation
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer on Wednesday released LMPD’s internal investigative files on the deadly Breonna Taylor raid.
The extensive file was compiled by Louisville Metro Police Department’s Public Integrity Unit and includes thousands of documents, hundreds of photos, and hours of body camera video. The file also includes interviews conducted by the PIU with many of the people who were present at Taylor’s home the night officers served the warrant on her home.
During the interviews, people differ in how they remember what happened.
Greg Gitschier said those differences are not shocking. Gitschier has served in law enforcement for 33 years, 11 in Louisville Metro, and 22 as a member of the Secret Service. He said he’s been in several situations in which bullets were fired at him, and said the body changes during a life and death situation.
“The adrenaline immediately pumps through your body,” Gitschier said. "You kind of get, some people call it a fight or flight, but basically the adrenaline is making your heart beat, your eyes dilate. Your mouth gets real dry, right? It’s because your body’s trying to take in, ‘where is the threat and how do I survive it?’”
Gitschier said in stressful times, people may have different focal points and rely on their memory to fill in other, more minute details.
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Eyewitness inaccuracies can also exist in the courtroom, experts say.
Criminal attorney and University of Louisville law professor Sam Marcosson told WAVE 3 News testimonies that are false can still carry weight with a jury if expressed confidently.
“Even when eyewitnesses' recollection departs from what actually happened, in the psychological or the sociological studies, that nevertheless if they express it with confidence, people who are hearing their story, in this case, jurors will tend to believe it,” Marcosson said. “Because they believe that over other things that may not be coming from an actual person. And so, we see that jurors tend to think that that’s among the most reliable evidence that they have, even though it often isn’t the most reliable evidence.”
Marcosson said in his experience, eyewitness testimonies are weighed second in a juror’s mind to a confession, which he said can also be inaccurate.
There is science to back up these inaccuracies.
UofL Neurologist Dr. Robert Friedland said human brains make memories differently during “critical periods.”
“The brain and the body will respond in a special manner, which is developed by evolution, in order to enhance performance," Friedland said. “At the same time, hormones that are released during a critical period like that influence the way memories are made. It influences the way synapses are produced and the way neurons are connected."
Friedland said humans may fill in gaps in memories with what they believe happened, because of how many stimuli humans are exposed to at a given time.
“The brain is not capable of perceiving the world the way it really is," Friedland said. "What we do is we make estimates. We make an assumption because we know how things are, we appraise the possibility unconsciously.”
Back in the courtroom, Marcosson said these inaccuracies are why he likes to pair witness testimony with other, objective forms of evidence. He said it allows people to gain a more full picture of how an event took place.
“It’s essential,” Marcosson said. “If you are dealing with a situation, especially one in which everything seemed to be chaotic, and therefore people’s perceptions, if only because they’re standing in a different place, and those perceptions are therefore going to differ, you have to have other evidence if the criminal justice system is going to be trusted to reach an outcome that is not based on biases, is not based on the position that somebody happens to have, but instead is based on evidence fairly assessed in the court of law.”
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