When I was in college, I was sexually assaulted. I ended up bruised and distraught. I didn’t talk about the experience for many years, but when I finally did, I realized that many if not most of the details were lost to my memory.
There is no way I would presume to rely on my memory – and all the emotions the experience generated in me – to bring that young man to court today.
The well-documented problem with memory is why I urge the Legislature to reject Senate Bill 813, which would end the 10-year statute of limitations for prosecuting most sex crimes. The bill is to be heard Tuesday by the Senate Committee on Public Safety.
I became a social psychologist, specializing in gender, and have been a lifelong feminist. But that commitment exists alongside my commitment to justice because I have seen how with the best of intentions, we can pass laws to fix a problem, only to cause equally devastating consequences.
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In California and across the country, we have seen this happen repeatedly with issues that generate deep emotions, notably sexual abuse. The 1990s epidemic of “recovered memories” – which led to extensions of statutes of limitations in many states, allowing adults to file abuse charges 30, 40, even 50 years after the alleged crime – escalated until scientists disproved the popular belief that traumas are usually repressed and can be accurately recovered in therapy.
Today, thanks to the tireless work of psychological scientists and neuroscientists, we understand that memory is not a tape recorder. Memory is deeply fallible, influenced by subsequent events and information. Psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that people can make a false allegation not because they are lying or malicious, but simply because they are misremembering. This phenomenon has contributed to an enormous number of wrongful convictions caused by faulty eyewitness identification and faulty memory.
One famous case is that of Jennifer Thompson, who was raped in 1987 in North Carolina. She picked out her attacker in mugshots and in a lineup. Based on her identification, a young black man named Ronald Cotton was sentenced to two life terms. A second trial was held after evidence emerged that the real rapist might be another man, but Thompson once again identified Cotton. Eleven years later, DNA evidence exonerated Cotton and implicated the other man, who confessed. Thompson was devastated.
Of course we all want justice for anyone who has been sexually abused. But it cannot be purchased at the price of injustice for the innocent.
Carol Tavris is a social psychologist and writer in Los Angeles. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.