Memory expert takes stand in Michelle Troconis trial; defense to rest Friday

The testimony led to some tense back and forth during the prosecution’s cross-examination, leading the judge to call for a recess because the proceedings were “becoming unhinged.”

Marissa Alter

Feb 23, 2024, 1:30 AM

Updated 58 days ago


A high-profile memory expert took the stand for the defense on Day 26 of Michelle Troconis’ trial in connection to the disappearance and presumed death of Jennifer Dulos. The testimony led to some tense back and forth during the prosecution’s cross-examination, leading the judge to call for a recess because the proceedings were “becoming unhinged.”
Much of the trial so far has focused on hours of police interviews with Michelle Troconis and inconsistent statements she made. The prosecution has characterized them as lies. But on Thursday, Dr. Elizabeth Loftus offered another explanation. Loftus, a university professor and experimental psychologist, told the jury that memory is malleable and can be tainted by suggestions from other people. She described the results of various experiments done in her research.
“Many times, they will succumb to the suggestion, fall sway to the suggestion and adopt it as their own memory. And they really believe it. These are not people who are lying. These are people who really believe in what they're saying,” Loftus testified.
Loftus also said that memory fades, and the more time that passes, the memory becomes more and more susceptible to post-event suggestion. She also testified that sleep deprivation and stress can impact a person’s memory, along with repeated questioning about an event.
"It's not good for the accuracy to put a lot of pressure on the subject,” Loftus told the jury.
She called police interrogations “ripe” for potentially contaminating somebody’s memory since police often introduce false statements.
“They can lie to them, and they're permitted to do that. I personally think that's not a very good practice,” Loftus said.
She also testified that her studies show the source of the mis-information matters. “People are more likely to accept misinformation if it comes from a source that they think is knowledgeable or they think is not trying to deliberately mislead them,” Loftus said.
Defense attorney Jon Schoenhorn also asked Loftus about an experiment where people were asked to make a timeline for a mundane day three weeks earlier.
“When they went to verify, half the cases where incorrect,” she stated.
Loftus is considered a key witness for the defense to counter the prosecution’s narrative of why Troconis gave false information to police, including giving her then-boyfriend, Fotis Dulos, an alibi for the morning of May 24, 2019, when his estranged wife vanished. Troconis is accused of conspiring with him to kill Jennnifer Dulos, then helping him cover up the crime.
Schoenhorn also had Loftus go through her extensive resume which includes writing over 600 articles and 20 books on the subject of memory. Assistant State's Attorney Sean McGuinnes tried to paint Loftus as not being a neutral, impartial witness and seized on one of the books she wrote, “Witness for the Defense: The Accused, the Eyewitness and the Expert who Puts Memory on Trial." McGuinness had her read from it. “Should a psychologist in a court of law act as an advocate for the defense or an impartial educator? My answer to that question if I'm completely honest is both. If I believe a defendant is innocent, if I believe in his innocence with all my heart and soul, then I probably can't help but become an advocate of sorts,” Loftus read.
McGuinness also honed in on Loftus' prior work for the defense in high profile cases including Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Phil Spector, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Robert Durst and Harvey Weinstein. Loftus said she's testified in over 300 trials. Half were criminal cases with all but one being for the defense.
“Do you think that the reason you don't get hired more by the prosecution is because you've written a book called ‘Witness for the Defense?’” McGuinness asked, immediately drawing an objection from Schoenhorn.
Judge Kevin Randolph sustained the objection calling the question argumentative. Randolph also warned McGuinness after he remarked to Loftus, “That was a very long answer to a simple question.”
“That's not a question,” Randolph stated. “The court understands zeal. The court understands the cut and thrust of cross, but what the court is not going to countenance is a lack of respect.”
McGuinness only made it another few questions before testimony had to be stopped.
“Doctor, is it fair to say that you have built a lucrative career coming in to court and testifying in criminal cases?” McGuinness asked.
"It's fair to say that I’m compensated for my time just as you are," Loftus responded.
“You think I make $700 an hour?” McGuinness shot back.
Randolph interrupted to say court would take a recess “because things are becoming unhinged.”
When court resumed, McGuinness pointed out that people who committed crimes often lie to police and change their stories, which Loftus agreed with.
He also focused on timelines Troconis and Fotis Dulos wrote about their whereabouts the day Jennifer Dulos disappeared. The timelines included a mention of the two of them showering that morning, which police proved was not true, and left off a trip the two made to Albany Avenue in Hartford. Surveillance footage there captured Fotis Dulos dumping garbage bags with evidence connected to his wife’s presumed murder. Troconis was a passenger in Fotis Dulos’ truck at the time.
McGuinness pointed out the timelines were written before Troconis was arrested so she couldn’t have been under stress, sleep-deprived or had false memories implanted by police.
Outside the courthouse, Loftus spoke with reporters about her testimony and the cross-examination.
“The prosecutor did what most prosecutors do. He tried to bring up all of these unpopular people in whose cases I’ve testified or for whom I have consulted in their case,” Loftus said. “I think it is kind of an unfair thing to try to link the current accused Michelle with these people who are unpopular.”
Loftus said she’d never met Troconis until that day, and it wasn’t her role to determine if she was lying or not but to explain the science behind how people’s memories can be contaminated and transformed.
“In this case, I think the prosecution wants the jury to believe she's a big fat liar, and there's an alternative explanation here,” Loftus stated.
Schoenhorn said the testimony wasn’t to offer an opinion but serve an educational purpose.
“This entire case seems to be about whether or not Ms. Troconis said things at different times that contradicted things at another time,” Schoenhorn explained.
Troconis is the first defendant to stand trial in the Jennifer Dulos case after Fotis Dulos died by suicide in January 2020 while facing charges including murder and kidnapping. Troconis has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit murder, evidence tampering, conspiracy to commit evidence tampering and hindering prosecution. Kent Mawhinney, Fotis Dulos’ friend and former attorney, is also charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Mawhinney had been on the prosecution’s list of possible witnesses, but McGuinness told the court he wouldn’t take the stand.
News 12 asked Schoenhorn his reaction to Mawhinney not testifying. Schoenhorn said he’d reviewed the police interrogation of Mawhinney while he was in jail. It was after that interview, that Mawhinney had his bond lowered by the state and was able to get out of jail.
“In my view, his testimony would've been contradicted by I would say ten different solid witnesses and evidence that could demonstrate what he said was not credible. I will not go farther than that in terms of whether or not the state knew or believed that his allegations were not credible,” Schoenhorn said.
The defense is expected to call its final witnesses and rest on Friday.

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