With Harvey Weinstein’s fate hinging largely on what his accusers remember about what they say were sexual assaults years ago, his lawyers Friday turned to an expert known in the world of psychology for her studies of false, repressed and unreliable memories.
“It doesn’t take a PhD to know that memories fade over time,” cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus told jurors at Weinstein’s New York City rape trial.
As memories fade, she said, people become more vulnerable to “post-event information,” including media reports that can distort what they remember. They also can distort their own memories with inferences and guesses about past events.
False memories “can be experienced with a great deal of detail, a great deal of emotion, even though they’re false,” she said. “The emotion is not a guarantee you’re dealing with an authentic memory.”
Loftus, 75, is expected to be the focal point Friday, a day after prosecutors rested their case against Weinstein after more than two weeks of testimony.
Co-author of the 1994 book The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, she has been a controversial figure in her field. That’s in part because her work on behalf of big-name clients like serial killer Ted Bundy, and because her testimony has often helped undermine people who say they are victims of sexual abuse or violence.
Weinstein is charged with raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in March 2013 and forcibly performing oral sex on a different woman in 2006. Weinstein, 67, has maintained any sexual encounters were consensual.
Defence questions case’s credibility
Weinstein’s lawyers are aiming to raise more doubts about the women’s allegations after highlighting inconsistencies in some of their accounts during cross-examination questioning about encounters that, in some cases, happened a decade or two ago.
But the judge barred Loftus from testifying about memories specific to sexual interactions, and she said that she also was not asked to evaluate any of the accusers or their testimony.
In her work on behalf of Ted Bundy, Loftus wrote later, she seized on “leading and suggestive questions” by investigators and “hesitations and uncertainties on the part of the victim” as signs of muddled memories.
On the stand Friday, she sounded a similar note, telling jurors that interactions with law enforcement “can lead people to want to produce details,” she said.
“Some can be accurate and some can be false and inaccurate,” Loftus said.
When prosecutor Joan Illuzzi-Orbon asked the witness whether she was originally asked to be a defence consultant, rather than a witness, she responded, “I don’t remember what I was asked exactly.”
“Is that due to post-event information?” Illuzzi-Orbon quipped.
Weinstein’s lawyers skipped plans to start Friday off by calling a prolific Hollywood writer and director to the stand to testify about rape accuser Annabella Sciorra’s prescription drug use during a movie shoot in the early 1990s.
Warren Leight was at the courthouse on Thursday, but now it appears he will not testify.
Sciorra, now 59, testified that she was hooked on Valium when the film, The Night We Never Met, started shooting in late 1992, but she refuted defence suggestions that she was still on the drug the night she alleges Weinstein raped her in 1993 or 1994. She said she had weaned herself off by then.
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they have been victims of sexual assault, unless they come forward publicly.
The first defence witness, an industry executive who remains a Weinstein ally, seemed blindsided on Thursday when a prosecutor confronted him with text messages that appeared to justify Weinstein’s behaviour and bash his accusers.
Paul Feldsher, a former agent who once knew Sciorra, scolded Weinstein in November 2018 for “behaving like a cad.” But in another message shown to the jury, he stuck up for Weinstein, telling him: “I think the dog pile of actresses who are suddenly brave and recalling repressed memories is hideous.”
The defence had hoped Feldsher would discredit Sciorra by recounting a conversation he had with her in the early 1990s in which she supposedly told him she had “done this crazy thing with Harvey” but didn’t say she had been assaulted.
“My understanding was that she fooled around with him,” Feldsher testified.