Following that lead, Loftus won funding in 1974 for a proposal to study witness accounts of accidents, and she soon published the first of several influential studies revealing the limitations of eyewitness testimony. She showed people film clips of car accidents and asked them to estimate the speed of the cars. The wording of the questions, she found, had a profound effect on the estimates. People who were asked, “How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” gave higher estimates on average than those with whom the verb 'hit' was used. And those who were told that the cars had 'contacted' each other gave the lowest estimates.
Those asked about cars smashing into one another were more than twice as likely as others to report seeing broken glass when asked about the accident a week later, even though there was none in the video. “I realized that these questions were conveying information,” says Loftus. “I began to think of it as a process of memory contamination, and we eventually called it the misinformation effect.”
She went on to publish several other studies showing how memories can be contorted, and that the ability of eyewitnesses to identify suspects from photographs can be unreliable. Any description they might hear has the potential to influence who or what they think they saw.
Loftus was eager to translate these findings to the real world, and began consulting on legal cases to get “close up and personal” with witnesses. Her first case — of a woman accused of killing her abusive boyfriend — hinged on whether the woman had acted in self-defence or had committed premeditated murder. Eyewitnesses could not agree on how much time had elapsed between when the defendant had picked up the gun and when she had fired it: some said it was seconds, others said minutes. Loftus cast doubt on the memory of the witnesses, and the woman was acquitted.
Loftus described the case, together with her research, in a 1974 article for Psychology Today magazine. “Once that article came out, I started getting calls from all over the place,” she says. “From lawyers wanting me to work on their cases, and legal professionals wanting me to lecture at their meetings.”
Some of her trials have been high-profile — including that of the serial killers known as the Hillside Stranglers and the 1992 trial of the police officers indicted for beating construction worker Rodney King. She even consulted on a case involving a young law student named Ted Bundy, who was accused of kidnapping a woman in 1974. Bundy was convicted, only to escape. Recaptured in 1978, he eventually admitted to killing 30 people.
The possibility of aiding guilty people does not faze Loftus. “I haven't had a situation where someone was acquitted because of my testimony and then went on to commit some awful crime,” she says. “I would feel horrible if that happened, but I'm only one small piece of a court case.” She is often compensated for her expert-witness work, earning up to US$500 per hour, she says.
Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, says that Loftus's activism in the court is not unique, and that testifying on behalf of unpopular defendants is important. “It shows that she has tried to be truly impartial, and that her goal is to try to provide an accurate understanding of the science, no matter who is involved.”
Still, Loftus has drawn the line at some defendants, such as John Demjanjuk, who in 1988 stood accused in Israel of being 'Ivan the Terrible', a guard who operated gas chambers at the concentration camp Treblinka in Poland during the Second World War. Loftus, herself Jewish, declined to testify because she worried that it would upset family and friends.