Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus testified for the defense in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial Friday, laying out how memory can become distorted over time.
Loftus, a distinguished professor at UC Irvine, has appeared as an expert witness in more than 300 trials and has testified in a number of high-profile sexual misconduct and murder cases, including those of O.J. Simpson, Ted Bundy and the officers accused in the Rodney King beating. She also consulted in the trials of Michael Jackson and Bill Cosby.
She has routinely testified that memories can be transformed and contaminated — and, in some cases, altogether false.
Loftus stuck to a similar narrative during her testimony Friday, though she was not permitted to speak on issues of memory tied to sexual interactions. She explained that many factors can lead to weakened or entirely fabricated memories, including some therapy techniques, media coverage and questioning by law enforcement.
“False memories, once created — either through misinformation or though these suggestive processes — can be experienced with a great deal of emotion, a great deal of confidence and a lot of detail, even though they’re false,” Loftus told the jury.
Loftus’ testimony could be consequential in a case that relies heavily on the memory of accusers, some of whom alleged Weinstein assaulted them many years ago.
While on the stand, Weinstein’s accusers have sometimes confused dates or details of their alleged assaults, which is not unusual for victims of sexual violence, according to trauma experts.
Defense attorneys on Thursday pointed out that accuser Lauren Young had previously told investigators she pulled and pounded on the door of the hotel bathroom Weinstein allegedly had trapped her in, though she testified to the contrary.
“I blocked out some memories because I had such a traumatic experience,” Young, 30, told the jury. Young said that when she first talked to investigators she hadn’t yet begun therapy, which helped her resolve her trauma around the assault and remember it more clearly.
On Friday, Loftus said that while there are many forms of effective therapy, mental health professionals may sometimes pressure their clients to produce more detailed accounts, which could lead to unintended fabrication or distortion of memories.
Loftus cited her most well-known study, “Lost in the Shopping Mall,” which showed that, through a series of interviews, people could be induced to remember that they had once gotten lost in a shopping mall as children and were rescued by a stranger, even though the event never happened.
Loftus’ research has been used to discredit abuse survivors’ testimony in court, and it also has led to stricter requirements for the use of recovered memories in trials. Therapists and academics who believe memory repression is a natural survival technique continue to contest her stance on the phenomenon.
With the exception of one case, she has exclusively testified for the defense since the 1970s. During cross-examination, Loftus said that she typically charges $600 an hour for her work in cases.
Some psychologists who study memory and trauma disagree with how Loftus frames her award-winning research in court, contending that her testimony in cases of alleged sexual misconduct tends to be one-sided and incomplete and has the potential to mislead jurors.
A review of research finds that 2% to 10% of sexual assault accusations are false, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Many such studies are unreliable, though, because of inconsistencies in methods used to evaluate data.
All memories are fragmentary and incomplete and tend to fade over time. A trauma victim may incorrectly recall certain details of the event, such as the color of an attacker’s eyes, or how he or she got home that night.
But people almost always remember the general outline, or the “gist” of what happened, according to psychologists.
On Friday, Manhattan Assistant Dist. Atty. Joan Illuzi-Osborn pressed Loftus on this issue.
“Is it also correct to say, after time passes ... some peripheral details may be lost, but the core memory will remain strong?” Illuzi-Osborn asked.
“Generally, it will remain stronger,” Loftus replied. “It should fade to some extent ... and potentially be susceptible to some contamination.”
“But much less right?” Illuzi-Osborn said.
“I agree, much less,” Loftus answered.