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Both sides rest case after memory testimony

By From page A1 | October 21, 2013

The final day of testimony in the Joseph Michael Nissensohn triple-murder trial focused on an expert witness testifying to how memories are formed.

First, however, defense attorney Hayes Gable III called El Dorado County District Attorney Investigator Paul Moschini. Moschini interviewed inmate Luke Johnston twice, the second time on Aug. 21, 2011. The inmate contacted the DA’s office claiming to have new information on Nissensohn. He told Moschini and Deputy District Attorney Dale Gomes, the prosecutor of the trial, that Nissensohn claimed to have beheaded a woman and buried her, in parts, at the Kingsbury Grade. Nissensohn told him, Johnston claimed, that “no one would ever find her.”

Moschini believed Johnston “lacked credibility” and he was “pretty dismissive of Luke Johnston” after the interview. He was then excused from the stand.

Gable called the final witness of the trial, Geoffrey Loftus, Ph.D. Loftus, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, was questioned on how memories are formed and how they are retained.

Conscious perception is fairly accurate, but only a relatively small amount is retained as memories. The reason for this, he said, is post-event information. This is used to supplement conscious perception, “filling in gaps and holes” to “make a more coherent story.” Post-event information could be someone telling the person details or reading about it in a newspaper.

This can develop a “strong, detailed” memory, but, unbeknownst to the person remembering it, is a false memory.

If an event is asked about often, however, the conscious perception will hold, with the person remembering more true details. An example, he said, was a sibling’s name — it’s recalled often and thus easier to remember.

There are three things that make a memory inaccurate, Loftus said. The first is during the event, it is too dark, the person is under stress or not paying attention. The second is retention — the longer it has been since last recalled, the worse the person will remember and use post-event information to fill in the gaps. The final is the technique in eliciting the recollection of the memory, such as using leading questions, which can be post-event information.

The person’s attention during an event can also affect memory. Much like a spotlight beam can only illuminate on small area, Loftus said, a person can only pay attention to so much.

But, Gable asked, what if a person was highly confident about their memory? High confidence, Loftus said, does not necessarily mean that the person is remembering correctly, as they may not realize post-event information had become part of their memory. If decades had passed, the memory would have decayed. If not recalled often, the average time for conscious perception to decay is a year. There would be “little original info, a huge amount of post-event information.” The memory could be “very detailed, completely real-seeming … but little was acquired at the time of the event.”

Gomes’ questions for Loftus focused on money. He confirmed with Loftus that the professor had accepted millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded grants for his studies, and that he would be receiving between $13,000 or $14,000 plus expenses for the work he did on the case and traveling to South Lake Tahoe twice.

After Loftus was excused, both sides rested their case. The trial will resume on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at 8:30 a.m. for jury instructions, closing arguments and deliberation.

Nissensohn is accused of killing Tammy Jarschke and Tanya Jones in Seaside, near Monterey, in 1981, and Kathy Graves in South Lake Tahoe in 1989. He has already served 15 years after being convicted on the second-degree murder of Sally Jo Tsaggaris in 1991. If found guilty, Nissensohn would be classified a serial killer and could face the death penalty.

Cole Mayer

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