Since her first case in 1974 Elizabeth Loftus has testified in and advised on hundreds of criminal cases, often urging judges and jurors to consider the fallibility of memory. Image: Flickr/TED Conference/James Duncan Davidson
In the early hours of 9 September, 1984, a stranger entered Mrs M's California home through an open living-room window. Finding Mrs M asleep, he tried to rape her, but fled when other people in the house awoke. Mrs M described her assailant to the police: he was black, weighing about 170 pounds and 5'7” to 5'9” tall, with small braids and a blue baseball cap.
Officers cruising her neighborhood spotted someone roughly matching that description standing beside his car a block away from the house. The man, Joseph Pacely, said that his car had broken down and he was looking for someone to jump-start it. But Mrs M identified him as her attacker and he was charged.
At Pacely's trial a few months later, memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus testified on his behalf. She told the jury how memory is fallible; how stress and fear may have impaired Mrs M's ability to identify her assailant, and how people can find it difficult to identify someone of a race other than their own.
Pacely was acquitted. “It's cases like this that mean the most to me,” says Loftus, “the ones in which I play a role in bringing justice to an innocent person.”
In a career spanning four decades, Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, has done more than any other researcher to document the unreliability of memory in experimental settings. And she has used what she has learned to testify as an expert witness in hundreds of criminal cases — Pacely's was her 101st — informing juries that memories are pliable and that eyewitness accounts are far from perfect recordings of actual events.
Her work has earned her plaudits from her peers, but it has also made her enemies. Critics charge that in her zeal to challenge the veracity of memory, Loftus has harmed victims and aided murderers and rapists. She has been sued and assaulted, and has even received death threats. “I went to a shooting range to learn how to shoot,” she says, noting that she keeps a few used targets in her office as a point of pride.
Now, the 68-year-old scientist's research is starting to bring about lasting changes in the legal system. In July last year, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling — based largely on her findings — that jurors should be alerted to the imperfect nature of memory and the fallibility of eyewitness testimony as standard procedure. Loftus is working with judges in other states to make such changes more widespread.
“What's going on now in America really is something of a revolution,” says Martin Conway, a cognitive psychologist at City University London. Loftus' work, he says, has been “profoundly important” in shaping these changes.
Loftus says that her start in psychology was rudderless. As a graduate student in mathematical psychology at Stanford University in California, “I wasn't really captivated”, she says. “I'd sit in the back of the seminars, kind of bored, writing letters to my Uncle Joe or hemming skirts, or whatever.”
Eventually a social-psychology class piqued her interest and she began to study how word meanings are stored in the brain, and how people recall them. Still, something was missing. “One day I was having lunch with a cousin of mine,” she says, “and I told her about our great discovery that people are faster at naming 'a bird that's yellow' than 'a yellow bird'.” Her cousin — unimpressed — joked about taxpayers' money being wasted. “That's when I decided I wanted to work on something that had more practical applications.”
Loftus was casting about for a meaningful way to study memory and get funding when a former Stanford engineer working for the US Department of Transportation said that his employer would probably pay for research into car accidents.