PENNY BEERNTSEN IS INTERVIEWED ABOUT FALSE EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION FOR THE DOCUMENTARY TRUE MEMORIES AND OTHER FALSEHOODS
 

True Memories and Other Falsehoods

The Innocence Project estimates that 20,000 people are incarcerated in the United States for crimes they did not commit. Of the 2000+ cases exonerated to-date, over 70% involved mistaken eyewitness identification, and 27% included a false confession. Currently, the majority of police investigators in the United States undergo training, which encourages practices such as lying to a suspect if it will produce a disclosure, reasoning that an innocent person would never confess to a crime they did not commit. However, the advent of DNA evidence has proven that people do confess to crimes they did not commit and current methods can and do contribute to the production of detailed false memories and beliefs. 

If there is a bright side, it is that training alongside the implementation of specific measures such as promptly obtaining eyewitness statements, filming suspect and witness interviews from beginning to end, and educating investigators regarding confirmation bias and suggestive questioning can significantly improve outcomes. The trouble is, the majority of people, including police investigators, jurors, and even judges remain unfamiliar with the science behind belief and memory, and thus they don’t perceive the need for change.

True Memories and Other Falsehoods (TMOF) weaves together three criminal cases, each revolving around an investigation that leads to a false memory or false internalized belief. While the stories unfold chronologically, from three perspectives, the main characters exemplify how memory or belief can be manipulated, as we revisit the locations described and see or hear visual or sonic representations of the events. TMOF will juxtapose the stories, jumping from one to another at key act breaks, to encourage viewers to compare how false memory and false internalized belief can present in different contexts. Each case starts with a crime and then moves on to the investigation and verdict. Subsequently, new evidence surfaces which prompts a reversal in the initial judgments. However, for those involved, the impact is permanent. Occasionally, legal and scientific experts who specialize in wrongful conviction and human memory provide context to illuminate how commonly accepted investigative protocols can contaminate and shape belief while shedding light on what went wrong in these particular cases. The film concludes with a visit to a police department that is incorporating new interview methods shown to significantly reduce the implantation of false memory and false internalized belief while our main characters reflect upon their ordeals and offer their thoughts to improve the criminal justice system.

Given that according to a 2015 estimate in The Washington Post, tens of thousands of people are mistakenly incarcerated, TMOF is particularly relevant and will be a valuable springboard for education, discussion, and much-needed improvements and reforms. The film will not suggest discarding either eyewitness testimony or confessions, but rather it will stipulate that both need to be contextualized given current research about cognition and that diligent protocols need to be put in place to prevent future errors.

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