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“Contaminated Memories”: a look at mistakes and misinformation in criminal justice

The acclaimed Netflix series, “Making a Murderer,” examined the case of Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder. Penny Beerntsen, the woman who had been brutally assaulted, had incorrectly identified Avery as her attacker. DNA evidence later proved that another man had actually been the assailant.

The true crime documentary series was largely focused on the story of Avery. But a new documentary is taking a look at Beerntsen and the phenomenon of memory contamination, in which eyewitnesses to crimes can misidentify perpetrators due to misinformation (often passed along by police officers), biases, errors and manipulation.

“Contaminated Memories” explores “the intersection of memory and law,” director and producer Debra Tolchinsky wrote recently in a New York Times op-ed. The filmmaker writers that she was “moved by Ms. Beerntsen’s account as well as her openness about it” and wanted to “capture the concept of memory contamination in a visual way.”

Tolchinsky notes that memory contamination is “more widespread than we’d like to think.” She says that just describing an assault can be traumatic for survivors. Of course, many violent offenders are correctly identified when an eyewitness accurately remembers important unique details. Nevertheless, the filmmaker writes that “human memory is inherently flawed, and eyewitness misidentification plays a role in two-thirds of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.”

Even when police and eyewitnesses identify someone as the perpetrator of a crime, it is not certain that the identification is accurate. Trauma and misinformation can produce false memories and innocent people can be accused of crimes they did not commit.

Those who are wrongly accused in Lake Charles should speak with a criminal defense attorney experienced in protecting rights and freedom before talking to an investigator or prosecutor.

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