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‘The details are crucial in court’

Researcher Gezinus Wolters regularly has to determine in court whether a witness statement is reliable. How does he go about his work?

This article previously appeared in Leidraad, Leiden University’s free alumni magazine (in Dutch).

You can’t train your memory. There are tips and tricks for remembering names, for instance, says Gezinus Wolters, the Leiden expert in memory and remembering. But playing a musical instrument or learning a new language will not mean that you remember more across the board.

Books and papers

‘Obviously, it’s good to keep mentally active and to find new challenges. This gives reason to get up in the morning. It’s much better than staying in your comfort zone.’ Wolters is living proof of this. His room in the Pieter de la Court building is full of piles of books and papers. He’s there nearly every day, and often at the weekend too. He retired in 2008.

‘We look at how an abuse story came about. Did the child come out with it spontaneously or was it set in motion by a worried parent?’

Twelve years later he is still working as a guest lecturer at the Cognitive Psychology Department and as editor of the online journal Frontiers in Psychology. But for the most part he is an expert witness for the judiciary. In this role he determines whether statements by witnesses or informants are reliable. ‘This is often for sexual offence cases involving children. Then there is little information because no one else was present. We look at how the story came about. Did the child come our with it spontaneously or was it set in motion by a worried parent? Is the story consistent and are plausible details mentioned?’

‘You come up with additional new facts’

Wolters began doing this work around 2000, soon after a ‘boom’, as he terms it, in adults reporting sexual offences that had been ‘retrieved’ in therapy. He was a member of an expert group that researched such reports and advised the Public Prosecution Service about which steps to take. The expert group was set up because research had shown that ‘retrieved’ memories were often false memories. ‘These memories often surface when certain suggestions are made. If you hear that as a child you once got lost in a shopping centre and a woman gave you a sweet, you may become increasingly sure that this did happen. And the next step is that you come up with new facts – and then there was a man who took me with him.’

It is possible, to forget old traumas, says Wolters, but this isn’t very probable. ‘You’re unlikely to forget things that have a big impact.’

Abuse without trauma

Young children do not always remember sexual abuse. This is because the perpetrator has ‘groomed’ them and there was no question of aggression or threat. ‘It may sound strange, but then it isn’t necessarily traumatic for the child.’

Children are later mainly bothered by the reaction of those around them. A mother who starts crying or a father who starts shouting. ‘To parents I would say: keep calm. First find out what happened. Don’t let emotion take over because that is traumatic for your child.’

‘To parents I would say: keep calm. Don’t let emotions take over because that is traumatic for your child.’

It is often difficult to determine whether witness statements are accurate. Everyone sees things differently, many things are happening at the same time and the human memory is not made to store details. ‘And details are crucial in court.’ There are significant differences in what people remember, says Wolters. ‘My wife is incredibly good at remembering certain social situations. She knows exactly what happened, what people were wearing and what they did. I often have no idea. The only explanation that I can come up with is that these things are relevant to her, whereas I don’t pay them the slightest bit of attention.’

‘You are your memories’

Memories are important. ‘If, since you were a young child, you have only heard how good you are at everything and if people only say what you want them to say, you will become egotistical, someone who always knows better than others.’ Wolters was told as a child that you are not supposed to stand out too much. He was a shy boy and remained so too. He still feels a bit nervous when he has to give a lecture.

‘You are your memories,’ says Wolters. That is why what he would like most is to make a discovery that will prevent dementia. ‘Your memory becoming worse as you age is par for the course. But it’s the rapid deterioration that I find difficult. I would like everyone to be able to have meaningful interactions with their nearest and dearest right to the very end. But that’s still a utopia.’

Text: Janet van Dijk

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