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.
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