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  • Mind-Witness Testimony: The Unreliability of First-Person Accounts in Sex Trafficking Disclosure

    Ever since the very earliest judicial trials, eyewitness testimony has been the central and most highly-respected form of evidence; as the renowned memory expert, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, once said, “there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’” But as an increasing body of data shows, this instinct to trust the statements of “live human beings” over all other forms of evidence is at best misguided, and at worst completely counter to the discovery of truth. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the statistics of the Innocence Project, which found that seventy-two percent of the 311 people so far exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted by eyewitness testimony. The longer the amount of time between the event to be recalled and the occasion on which the witness is asked to recall it, the greater the distortion tends to be: events that fit the schema are embellished or even fabricated, and those that do not fit are downplayed and eventually forgotten. But this is only the simplest mechanism by which memory is distorted, and not the one of greatest interest for the specific topic of this paper. While some fraction of the firsthand accounts, related by those who represent themselves as victims of “sex trafficking,” are almost certainly true as related (subject to the usual distortion of time), and another probably larger fraction have been altered by the process of stereotypical conformation described above, it is likely that the majority of reported narratives are not factually correct in any way, however real they may seem to the self-identified victim. This paper will present three types of evidence to support it: first, that “sex trafficking” is neither as common as the public has been led to believe, nor as consistently and stereotypically exploitative; second, that there is extremely strong evidence for a mechanism for the formation of absolutely false memories, and that the narratives reported by self-identified “trafficking victims” bear a striking resemblance to past examples that experts and the legal system alike now agree are undoubtedly false; and third, that there are strong sociological, political, and economic reasons for certain parties to encourage the development, dissemination, and public acceptance of these narratives.

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