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November 24, 2017

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Scott Dickensheets:

Inquest a test of fragile memory

Its failings apparent in testimony, but this outcome likely correct

Erik Scott Coroner's Inquest - Day 6

Bill Scott, center, father of Erik Scott, speaks to reporters after a coroner's inquest for Erik Scott at the Regional Justice Center Tuesday, September 28, 2010. With Bill Scott are his wife Linda and attorney Ross Goodman. The jury found that the shooting of Erik Scott was justified. Launch slideshow »

Human memory can be a notoriously unstable and tricky mechanism for making decisions, imposing judgments or, more to the point in the Erik Scott inquest, getting at the truth.

It’s tempting to think of our memory as operating on a computer model — you imprint the information, file it properly and pull it up later, more or less intact. So, for example, when an assistant district attorney asks you what you saw, you simply download those details: The police said “Get on the ground.” Scott pointed a gun at the police. Shot, he fell forward.

But it’s probably more accurate to think of memory as a cloud of info pixels, afloat in various zones of your mind, from which you attempt to reassemble a picture from as many bits as can be retrieved.

On top of that, it’s susceptible to various corruptions and impulses: erosion over time, biases, suggestibility. New information reorders what you think you recall. Half-certainties harden. Sometimes our imagination embellishes or fills in gaps to create a narrative. You may not even realize it’s happening.

The police said “Get on the ground.” They said “Drop it.” Scott pointed the gun at police. Scott was handing the gun to police. They gave him time to comply. They fired immediately. He fell forward. He fell back.

Did you catch any of the televised coroner’s inquest into Scott’s July 10 death? Scott, 38, was shot a combined seven times by three Metro officers outside a Summerlin Costco after employees reported that he was acting erratically and was carrying a gun (for which he had a permit).

I’ve seen snatches of the proceedings and followed the Sun’s detailed live-blogging. It was fascinating on several levels.

Most obviously, of course, it let us watch, in all of its slow, deliberately repetitious glory, one of our most contested legal procedures. “This is not an adversarial process,” one of the assistant DAs insisted the first day; it’s about fact-finding.

But you could fill a very large room with people who feel otherwise, from civil rights activists to the families and friends of shooting victims on the wrong end of the inquest’s one-sided history: In more than 200 inquests in 34 years, only once has an inquest jury failed to exonerate the police. That was in 1976.

That streak remained intact even in the probe into the death of Trevon Cole, 21, killed by Detective Brian Yant on June 11 in what the inquest revealed to be an error-ridden operation.

On a different level, it was engrossing to follow along as this inquest inched toward its foregone (though in this case, probably correct) conclusion Tuesday, as it revealed the multiple fallibilities in the way memory works.

Take for example the witness who said Scott looked angry “in the eyes.” Not confused or disoriented, as other testimony has suggested. Angry. In his eyes. The witness seemed quite certain of it.

Not only is that a wildly subjective description with little forensic value; it’s worth asking, does that accurately represent the situation on July 10? Or could it be an emotional judgment overlaid since then, as the witness’s feelings about the event clarified, settled in and subtly colored her memory without her being aware of it?

Likewise for the witness, a criminal defense attorney, who called the shooting “gratuitous” and said, in contradiction of the 911 tapes, that the police fired on Scott immediately. More than one observer has suggested that his memory was driven by an anti-police agenda.

“Hindsight biases reveal that recollections of past events are filtered through current knowledge,” writes memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter in his 2001 book, “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.”

Really, it’s amazing and a little frightening how little you can trust your own brain sometimes.

Then again, it’s all we have. And despite the vagaries in testimony, the little shadings and discrepancies, in this case the core narrative was pretty consistent.

For all the shortcomings of the inquest process — in structure, in the fluctuations of human memory — this particular one isn’t likely to become the fulcrum for change that reform advocates want. Turns out that even a flawed process can get it right.

CORRECTION: This column originally reported that Erik Scott was shot eight times. It was corrected to seven. | (September 29, 2010)

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