- Giving witnesses access to records. If it’s helpful to a witness, lawyers can provide them with documents that are already in evidence, such as letters, notes, emails, and so on, to give them a reference that might help them remember important details. This process always requires care, because showing a witness a record can alter the witness’s memory. The adversarial context of litigation serves to limit the potential for distortion.
- Finding corroborating evidence. If oral testimony raises inconsistencies it can be helpful to examine other sources of information to compare with what witnesses have said. As they say, a photograph is worth a thousand words.
- Examining the witness. In some cases, especially those where the most important evidence is oral testimony, the witness may be asked many questions that are designed to test the witness’s overall reliability. Ultimately the power of oral testimony is determined by how reliable it appears to be. Attorneys may try to undermine the value of a given witness by demonstrating that the witness’s memory is highly faulty.
The fallibility of memory has far-reaching influence on how the legal system works. It is one of the important justifications for statutes of limitation, which limit the amount of time someone has to file a lawsuit. It shapes rules governing how evidence is gathered and used. And it plays a significant role in shaping the burdens each party to litigation must bear as they work to establish the facts of the case. Memory is almost always an issue in litigation. Oral testimony about events necessarily requires witnesses to remember events that happened months or even years before. Mistaken impressions can render a particular memory unreliable. For example, it’s easy to not see every detail of the roadway even in normal driving conditions, but someone who has been in an accident may be sure about important details that in fact were quite different than what memory retained: a light that she remembers being red was actually green, and so on. But intervening events can also shape memory. People telling their stories about events may embellish facts, and in time those embellishments could become part of the memory itself. People will also protect themselves from painful memories by unconsciously forgetting or changing details. Everyone has a different aptitude for remembering things. At one end of the spectrum are people with the rare gift of remembering tiny details many years later. At the other end of the spectrum are people suffering from brain injury or disease, who might not be able to remember what happened to them just a short time earlier. Most people fall in the middle: they’re able to remember important facts, but they might not recall the small details that are critically important to the case. Because memory is so complicated and diverse, attorneys use a number of strategies to verify information, including these: