After I suggested mistaken identity as a likely explanation for Christine Blasey Ford’s certainty that Brett Kavanaugh was her attacker, an article appeared that reinforces that theory.
I had said that both Dr. Ford and Supreme Court nominee Kavanaugh seemed utterly sincere in their testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Elizabeth Loftus, a cognitive psychologist and professor at the University of California, Irvine, says it’s absolutely possible that both actually ARE sincere. After spending decades researching human memory –- specifically, how it can change based on suggestion and other factors –- she says it’s very common to misremember details of an experience, particularly a traumatic one.
She says some “core” details might be remembered but peripheral ones not so much. That echoes what Dr. Ford herself said in testimony, as she tried to explain why she didn’t know where the party was or how she got home. But over time, memory changes, according to Loftus, especially with exposure to new information, and that’s something Dr. Ford didn’t go into. “Changing the details of an actual memory is a relatively easy thing to do,” Loftus says. “And it can happen spontaneously.”
What about victims who are “100 percent certain” of the identity of their attackers, as Dr. Ford said she was? “Sometimes people are very, very certain and wrong,” says Loftus. That’s just the point I was making in bringing up The Innocence Project, which uses DNA to exonerate people who were wrongly convicted and given long prison sentences for violent crimes. There have been many innocent men sent to prison for decades because the victim in the case was “100 percent certain” of her attacker’s identification. Literally hundreds have been exonerated through DNA testing. Mistaken ID is the cause of 70 percent of wrongful convictions. If victims and other eyewitnesses were always right about this, we'd have much less need for an Innocence Project.
Perhaps a victim remembers being pushed into a room or onto a bed, for example, but isn’t clear on who did it. She’s always going to remember certain details central to the attack itself, but, over time (in this case, 36 years), other details may come to be remembered quite differently from the way they happened. These might even include the identity of the attacker. The victim becomes convinced of that person’s guilt and even can create vivid new “memories” of what happened. Every time the mind replays them, they are reinforced.
Of course, someone in Kavanaugh’s situation can misremember, too, perhaps because of too much alcohol. A perpetrator may become totally convinced he’s innocent when in fact he isn’t. So how can we tell that Kavanaugh really is as innocent as he genuinely thinks he is? Well, we can look at his calendar to get an idea of what he was actually doing, consider his basic nature and values, how he lives his life, what his legions of friends and colleagues (male and female) who have known him for most of his life say about him. The allegations against him are just wildly inconsistent with what his longtime, close acquaintances know about him. So it seems highly unlikely that he ever did such a thing.
RELATED READING: The Kavanaugh hearings and the case for mistaken identity
Anyway, mistaken identity would account for the overwhelming probability that Kavanaugh is 100 percent innocent while Dr. Ford is 100 percent sure he’s the one who attacked her. This is the problem with automatically believing the victim in every case. It doesn’t mean the victim is lying, just that she’s 100 percent convinced of something that might be wrong. Of course, that doesn’t matter one bit to Senate Democrats, who are 100 percent desperate to keep Kavanaugh (or any Trump nominee) off the Court.