IPT Book Reviews

Title: Witness for the Defense   Positive Review Positive Review
Authors: Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketcham
Publisher: St. Martin's Press 1991

St. Martin's Press
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New York, NY 10010


This 288-page book is built around descriptions of cases in which Elizabeth Loftus has been involved as an expert witness for the defense.  The book, which is written for a popular audience, begins with a brief description of how Dr. Loftus began studying eyewitness memory as a graduate student.  Following the publication of an article in Psychology Today in 1974, she began receiving calls from attorneys regarding eyewitness evidence and then began appearing as an expert witness on the fallibility of memory.  She writes, "I've spent twenty years of my professional career trying to dispel the myth that human memory is infallible and immune from distortion."  This work has led to insults from self-righteous prosecutors, disapproval from fellow psychologists, and accusations from victims' rights groups that she tampers with truth and justice and enables the guilty to go free.

Part One of the book describes what is known about memory and explains how "our memories can be changed, inextricably altered."  Many examples are given and the basic principles of how memory works are explained.  Examples from actual cases as well as summaries of relevant research make the explanations easily understandable.  Problems in the investigation of cases, such as "photo-biased" lineups, and the phenomena known as "unconscious transference" can result in mistaken eyewitness identifications.  Since juries are strongly impressed by eyewitness testimony, eyewitness misidentification is the most common factor associated with wrongful convictions.

Each of the eight chapters in Part Two consists of an actual case.  Several cases involved erroneous eyewitness identification, biases in the line-up procedures, and other errors in the investigations, including misconduct on the part of the police and prosecution.  In addition, Dr. Loftus was involved in one of the trials of Ted Bundy and was asked, but declined, to testify in the case of John Demjanjuk.  Demjanjuk was accused of being Ivan the Terrible, on the basis of 35-year-old memories from five survivors from the Treblinka death camp.  A chapter is devoted to each of these cases.

One of the chapters describes allegations of sexual abuse by two five-year-old girls against a day camp counselor.  The girls had been repeatedly questioned and pressured by their mothers, police officers, and therapists to make statements about abuse.  The case, which is typical of those involving false accusations of sexual abuse, began when one of the mothers became suspicious following an ambiguous statement from one of the girls.  The history of children as witnesses in sexual abuse cases is briefly reviewed here along with findings of the research on children's suggestibility to leading questions.

The book contains a brief list of selected references.


This is an excellent book which will be useful to psychologists, attorneys, and interested laypersons.  Although the major principles concerning the fallibility of eyewitness testimony are supported by empirical research and are accepted by psychologists (Kassin, Ellsworth, & Smith, 1989), these phenomena are not understood by most people.  Therefore, when a jury hears an eyewitness confidently announce, "He's the one!  I saw him!", a conviction is likely.  This book, therefore, is especially valuable for attorneys and other nonpsychologists since it clearly explains the basic principles of memory, its fallibility and malleability, the effects of leading questions and biased lineups, and the difficulties of eyewitness testimony.  The use of frequent examples and different cases makes the book interesting and easy to read.

The problem of false convictions is discussed along with the tragic effects on those falsely accused and sometimes wrongly convicted.  One study claims that 25 innocent people have been executed in this century in the United States.  Another estimates that .5% of those arrested and charged for crimes such as murder, robbery, rape, and assault each year are wrongly convicted.  If this estimate is accurate, this translates into 8,500 wrongful convictions in a year.  Even if the number of those falsely convicted is less than this, these are real people whose lives are ruined by a wrongful conviction and imprisonment.  This can happen to anyone. "Anyone in the world can be convicted of a crime he or she did not commit, or deprived of an award that is due, based solely on the evidence of a witness who convinces a jury that his memory about what he saw is correct."

The chapter on the false allegations against the camp counselor by two five-year-old girls answers the question most people have about such cases: Why would a child lie about abuse?  The answer is that the girls didn't lie the repeated questioning from well-meaning adults inadvertently shaped and created a memory for events that never happened:

Katie Davenport and Paige Becker would believe for the rest of their lives that they had been abused on a summer day at camp in a cozy suburb of Chicago.  These two little girls had spent almost one-third of their lives remembering and reciting the details of their victimization by a young man they once trusted and liked.  They had internalized these details and incorporated them into their very identity.

There was no doubt in my mind that the children believed in their own stories.  And thus, in the most profound sense of the word, they were telling the truth.  If a memory that is false is believed to be true if either Katie or Paige believed with all her heart that she had been molested who could call her a liar?  And so the question, "do you believe the children?" is not really the right question.  The crucial question, the question we should be asking is this: "Is this child's memory an original truth, or an after-the-fact truth?"

The book then addresses the tragedy of teaching nonabused children that they have been abused:

Tony Herrerez might be innocent in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of these children, children whose memories would grow old with them, there would always and forever be the image of that summer day in July 1984 when Tony touched them in "bad places."  That was their memory, the beginning of the end of their innocence, and they would live with the sight, the sound, and the touch of it for all the days of their lives.

Dr. Loftus discusses her own dilemma in the Ivan the Terrible trial when her personal feelings conflicted with her understanding of her role as a scientist and the professional ethics of being willing to provide information to the finder of fact.  She also vividly describes the reactions of people to attorneys and expert witnesses who are involved in the defense of people accused of sexual abuse and rape.  A prosecutor followed her into the hall and said, "You're nothing hut a whore."  A friend confronted her after discovering that she had been retained in the McMartin case: "How could you?  Do you have no morals, no conscience?"  She quotes the attorney in the camp counselor case: "Those of us who defend people accused of sexually abusing children are despised and reviled right along with the defendant. People think we must be sick too."  These observations will be familiar to professionals and attorneys who have been involved in such cases.

This book is highly recommended.


Kassin, S. M., Ellsworth, P. C., & Smith, V. L. (1989). The "general acceptance" of psychological research on eyewitness testimony: A survey of the experts. American Psychologist, 44, 1089-1098.

Reviewed by Hollida Wakefield and Ralph Underwager, Institute for Psychological Therapies, Northfield, Minnesota.

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