Return to the upper page
(click here)

A new approach to examine confession and testimony

The slides and texts below were presented at the 8th Biennial Meeting of the  Society for Applied  Research in Memory & Cognition. (Kyoto,  Japan).

How do we discriminate a real confession or testimony from a fabrication.  I will propose a new method for this task.

    We have some difficulties when we apply findings of the traditional memory research to examine confession and testimony. I think an approach proposed here can overcome these difficulties and become one promising method.

First, I point out four difficulties in the traditional memory research. Second, I will show a judicial practice and experimental findings which developed this method.

The first of four difficulties is the inaccessibility to past events in everyday situations. So we have to examine the credibility of remembering of a crime or eyewitness only based on the remembering itself.

    In laboratory experiments, there is an experimenter who always knows what participants experienced. I have called such a person 'privilege' or 'privileged being'. We cannot rely on the 'privilege' when we examine the credibility of confession and testimony. 

The second difficulty occurs in analysis of communication between a speaker and a recipient. Policemen and prosecutors as recipients often frame and orient remembering of witnesses, suspects, and defendants, even suggest them to modify their statements. This is not the unusual case at least in Japan.

    In laboratory experiments, participants can remember by themselves. Interruptions by experiments are not basically permitted because they are supposed to function as interfering variables. But we have to examine the credibility of confession and testimony depending on such 'contaminated' data.

The third difficulty occurs in analysis of communication between a speaker and a recipient. Policemen and prosecutors as recipients often frame and orient remembering of witnesses, suspects, and defendants, even suggest them to modify their statements. This is not the unusual case at least in Japan.

    In laboratory experiments, participants can remember by themselves. Interruptions by experiments are not basically permitted because they are supposed to function as interfering variables. But we have to examine the credibility of confession and testimony depending on such 'contaminated' data.

The fourth and last difficulties is that confession and testimony should be examined case by case. In judicial practice, 'this particular witness, suspect or defendant’ is examined, not an abstract and averaged person who exist nowhere.

    Traditional researchers usually refer to a general law that is only probabilistically applicable to individual cases. A general law implies that many people tend to act like such and such, not that all people do. There are exceptions with any rules. So if we have a method that can examine the credibility case by case, it is better.

The new method was developed through our struggle against a criminal case. This case is called 'the Ashikaga Case' in which a young girl was murdered. 

    Although the defendant called S started denying his commitment to the crime in the middle of trials, DNA testing identified his DNA with the criminal's one and S was adjudicated guilty. But because DNA technology at that time was less advanced, some experts cast doubt on the reliability of the testing. This year, DNA of the criminal was retested by using more advanced technology and it denied the identity of DNA between the criminal's and Ss'. This case will be retried soon and it is highly probable for S to be found innocent.

    The defense counsel of S questioned the credibility of his confession as well. They requested our examination of S's confession before his denying his commitment.

S had chance to talk about his real experiences that other people (they were policemen, his colleagues at work) also knew. Of course, contents of his experiences were impossible to identify because there was no 'privilege'. But it was possible to say that events he referred actually happened as far as specified as their names like the domiciliary search.

    We found an interesting difference between his confession and his narrative of his experiences. When S talked about his experiences, he strongly tended to alternately mention his own actions and such counteractions as other people's actions or changes of an environment. 

    See Extract 1 on your handout. This is his remembering of the domiciliary search. You can see an agent of actions alternates. This tendency was called 'agent alteration'.  

    This tendency decreased in his narrative of his commitment. Instead, his narrative took on the form of 'agent succession' where he refers to his actions successively. See Extract 1 again.

    These results suggest that S's contact to an environment reflected on forms of his remembering. We need not analyse contents of S's statements to confirm the veracity of his experiences. Now we have the prospect that we can find the veracity of an experience through the analysis of forms of, not contents of, remembering.

Inspired by the results of Ashikaga Case, I conducted an experiment controlling the qualities of participants' experiences.  

    The general procedure of this experiment is showed on a slide as well as your handout. 

    Participant Y and participant O individually took part in a navigation task. They were requested to find out seven targets in either University A or University B. Y was assigned to navigation at University A. and O was to one at University B. 

    About a month later after the navigation task, they were unexpectedly instructed to exchange information about the university they went to because they would be asked questions about the both universities in the next Remembering phase. They were asked to behave a person who performed the navigation task in both universities on the next phase.

    About two weeks later after the former phase, Y and O were interviewed individually. Because double blind method applied for the interviewers, they did not know the participants had two different experiences; one was their direct experience contacted to the environment and the other was indirect experience heard from another participant. Remembering occurred in every two weeks and three times in total.

The communication between Y and an interviewer P was analysed and several differences between two different rememberings were found. They are summarised in a table on a slide as well as your handout. These pairs of features were sharply contrasted in the earlier remembering, but they became more similar with the repetition of remembering.

    The first difference appeared in narrative styles. In her remembering of her direct experience, Y tended to alternately mention her movement, her recognition, her cognition, and objects she encountered. This tendency decreased in her remembering of her indirect experience. She tended to successively mention the same kind of an utterance.

    The second difference was found in her description of objects. When Y mentioned objects she really encountered, she variously described them in regard to their appearance and sometimes unstably named the objects. See Extract 2 on your handout. On the other hand, she described the appearances of objects she had heard from O poorly and named them stably.

    The third difference was shown when she mentioned a motive for her behaviours. During her remembering of her direct experience, incidental encounters with the objects in the environment often induced her behaviours. See Extract 3. During her remembering of her indirect experience, however, internal motives or knowledge often triggered her actions.

    The last difference appeared in her difficulty of drawing a map. When the interviewer asked Y to draw at the beginning of her remembering of her direct experience, she froze with holding a pen and was silent for about one minute. Y did not show such difficulty during her remembering of her indirect experience.

    As found in Ashikaga Case, Y's contacting experience to an environment can be detected in forms of her remembering, especially in her earlier one.

    When people commit to a crime and see accidents, they contact to a place, other people, and objects. If suspects' or defendants’ and witnesses' contacting experiences to an environment were found in forms of remembering, we could discriminate real confession and testimony from fake ones even when we cannot access targeted events.

You can see a new approach developed by our practical and empirical works overcomes the four difficulties. 

    1) The defendant S’s and the participant Y’s experience was found without comparison with original event.

    2) The veracity of an experience was confirmed even though the recipients actively interrupted S and Y.

    3) The veracity of an experience was confirmed by analysing forms of, not contents of, their remembering.

    4) By using as markers narrative forms peculiar to each rememberer’s experiences, we could examine the veracity of an experience case by case.

This new approach is called 'schema approach'. The general procedure of this method can be summarised below;

    # Refer to narratives of real experiences and find forms peculiar to them.

    # Compare them with forms of confession and testimony to be examined.

We can point out some limitations of schema approach. 

    First of all, this approach need possible reference to real experiences of defendants or witnesses. This requirement is not necessarily satisfied in court of trials because it is not easy to talk about irrelevant things to cases to be tried. 

    Second, we do not know how specifically we can find hints of contacting experiences to an environment. For example, can we find a witness’ contacting experience of one particular person or object in his testimony? 

    Third, we do not know how to detect another kinds of experiences different from contacting ones to an environment, for example, motive and intention.

    Although this new approach is a developing one, I believe this is one promising method to examine testimony and confession.