Psychologist, University of California, Irvine

The Importance Of Innocence

"I don't think a lot of people realize how important innocence is to innocent people." These are haunting words spoken in the film "A Cry in the Dark"

The wrongful conviction of innocent people has been a serious problem in our society.  It is a problem that we are now becoming acutely aware of through the release of individuals who were shown to be actually innocent by DNA testing.  One happy consequence of these sad cases is the advent of a number of "innocence projects," typically operated out of law schools and dedicated to the freeing of those who were wrongfully convicted.

I wish I could say that I was optimistic that the problem of wrongful convictions will virtually disappear, sort of like polio. I can't. But I am optimistic that the problem of wrongful convictions will become smaller than it once was. Here's why. Just as the a plane crash leads to a microscopic analysis of what went wrong, so these cases of proven wrongful conviction have been dissected to determine what went wrong. The answer in the majority of cases is faulty memory. In a recent case, a rape victim misidentified a man as her attacker — a mistake of faulty memory. Readers can find out more about how these kinds of errors happen by reviewing the cases on the website of the Innocence Project.

The mistaken identification by the rape victim, and others similarly situated, comes as no surprise to scientists who have studied eyewitness memory. We have learned a great deal about what it is about our system that promotes these tragic errors. And finally our government is listening, a price paid by the hundreds individuals whose suffered through years of imprisonment and are now free. The Dept of Justice convened a committee to make recommendations to law enforcement for how witnesses and victims should be handled to preserve that valuable "memory evidence." Many states have recently adopted a package of reforms for how witnesses are interviewed and lineups are conducted. It has been a triumph of scientific discovery — a science that has taught us much about the workings of the human mind, and also has made a difference in the way our world works. But the science has only scratched the surface, and has layers upon layers to go.  During this period we will see more memory science, more reforms in the justice system, and we will have fewer errors.

As we invest in the science, and make more progress, society needs to keep one important idea in mind. Memory, like liberty, must be cherished, nourished, and protected. Without one, we can easily lose the other.