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Profile: Robert Bjork
Robert Bjork was a participant or observer in the following events:
Lewis Libby’s lawyers inform the court that they intend to call a memory expert at trial (see January 31, 2006). Libby’s lawyers have already retained Harvard psychology professor Daniel Schacter, a memory expert, as a trial consultant (see Before February 28, 2006), though it is unclear whether Schacter is the expert they intend to put on the stand. The brief filed by Libby’s lawyers indicates they have already informed special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald of their intention to call the memory expert. [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 7/17/2006; Jeralyn Merritt, 7/19/2006] Two weeks later, the Libby team will announce that their memory expert will be psychology professor Robert Bjork (see July 31, 2006).
Lewis Libby’s legal team announces that it intends to call a psychology professor to testify that Libby did not deliberately lie to the FBI (see October 14, 2003 and November 26, 2003) and to the grand jury (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004), but merely made misstatements due to memory failure. In a court filing, the lawyers write, “Mr. Libby will show that the snippets of conversation at issue in this case took place amid a rush of pressing national security matters that commanded his attention throughout his long and stressful work day” (see January 31, 2006). The witness is Robert Bjork, a memory expert from UCLA. The lawyers say Bjork will explain that, contrary to what jurors may think, “memory does not function like a tape recorder, with memories recorded, stored, and played back verbatim.” Cornell University professor Ulric Neisser says the so-called “memory defense” that Libby’s team intends to mount may be effective. Referring to Libby’s claim that he learned of outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson from a reporter (see 12:00 p.m. June 11, 2003, 2:00 p.m. June 11, 2003, 5:27 p.m. June 11, 2003, (June 12, 2003), and July 10 or 11, 2003), Neisser says, “If everything hinges on who he learned it from first, people do forget that stuff all the time.” [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 7/31/2006 ; US District Court for the District of Columbia, 7/31/2006 ; Associated Press, 8/1/2006; New York Sun, 8/1/2006] Criminal defense lawyer Jeralyn Merritt, following the trial at the progressive blog TalkLeft, calls the use of a memory expert entirely appropriate, but notes: “The expert only should be allowed to explain the principles of memory and memory failure to the jury. He should not be allowed to render an opinion as to whether Libby’s memory failed since that’s the ultimate question for the jury to decide.” [Jeralyn Merritt, 8/1/2006]
Special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald files a motion opposing the Libby defense team’s intention to call a “memory expert” to testify on Libby’s behalf (see July 31, 2006). Libby’s lawyers intend to argue that their client, indicted felon and former White House aide Lewis Libby, has a faulty memory (see January 31, 2006), and it was a series of memory lapses that caused him to make false statements to the FBI (see October 14, 2003 and November 26, 2003) and the grand jury (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004) about his outing of CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson to reporters (see June 23, 2003, 8:30 a.m. July 8, 2003, 2:24 p.m. July 12, 2003, and Late Afternoon, July 12, 2003). Fitzgerald opposes the testimony of UCLA professor Robert Bjork, not because of problems with Bjork’s expertise in the field of human memory, but because “the defendant cannot meet his burden as the proponent of the evidence of establishing that the testimony will assist the jury in understanding or determining any of the facts at issue in this case.… To the contrary, there are strong reasons to believe that the proffered testimony may confuse, mislead, and unduly influence the jury.” Juries are often asked to evaluate a defendant’s memory in the course of a criminal trial, and it is “unusual” to present such testimony in the furtherance of a criminal defense, Fitzgerald asserts. [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 9/7/2006 ] In November, the judge will disallow Bjork’s testimony (see November 2, 2006).
Lewis Libby’s defense team files a brief contesting the prosecution’s attempt to bar proposed testimony by memory expert Dr. Robert Bjork (see July 31, 2006 and September 7, 2006). The defense lawyers accuse the prosecution of “trivializing” Bjork’s expertise in memory issues, and assert that the jury will need testimony from Bjork to adequately understand how Libby could have forgotten the information that led to his “inadvertent” lying to the FBI (see October 14, 2003 and November 26, 2003) and the Fitzgerald grand jury (see March 5, 2004 and March 24, 2004). Bjork’s testimony is envisioned as an integral part of the Libby “memory defense” (see January 31, 2006). [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 9/15/2006] In November, the judge will disallow Bjork’s testimony (see November 2, 2006).
Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. [Source: Injustice Busters (.org)]The Libby defense team presents a memory expert in a pre-trial hearing, but special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald dismantles her credibility and her expertise during the proceedings. Lewis Libby’s lawyers intend to argue that the pressure of his work during his stint as Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff caused Libby to “misremember” conversations he had with reporters about former CIA official Valerie Plame Wilson (see January 31, 2006), and therefore he cannot be guilty of perjury or obstruction of justice (see October 28, 2005). Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a professor of criminology and psychology at the University of California at Irvine, testifies in support of a motion by Libby’s lawyers that Dr. Robert Bjork, chairman of the UCLA psychology department, be allowed to testify in Libby’s defense during the actual trial (see July 31, 2006). For three hours, Fitzgerald conducts what MSNBC terms a “blistering” questioning session of Loftus, causing her to admit that some of her own findings about what juries know about memory are faulty, and that her own research may be flawed. [MSNBC, 10/26/2006; Jurist, 10/26/2006; Washington Post, 10/27/2006]
Uses Own Book to Disprove Claims - Fitzgerald quotes Loftus’s own book, Witness for the Defense, asking how she might try to sway a jury if she were to testify. Loftus had written that, “using my arsenal of subtle psychological tools” she could make an impression on a jury about her perception about guilt or innocence. Fitzgerald shows Loftus a line in her book that expressed doubts about research she had just cited on the stand as proof that Libby needs an expert to educate jurors. Loftus replies, “I don’t know how I let that line slip by.”
Loftus Admits Own Study Flawed - Loftus explains to Judge Reggie Walton that, according to a study she conducted in 2006, most jurors believe memory is like a “tape recorder,” a perception that many memory experts say is untrue. But, using material from Loftus’s study, Fitzgerald forces Loftus to admit that the study is most likely flawed, and that the answers some jurors provided in the study prove just the opposite of what Loftus claimed they said—that jurors can in fact use common sense to ascertain the effects of memory on witness testimony. Her study actually found that only 46 percent of jurors viewed memory as a “tape recorder” or “videotape.” [MSNBC, 10/26/2006; Washington Post, 10/27/2006]
Loftus's Memory Failure - Fitzgerald even catches Loftus in her own embarrasing memory failure; when Loftus insists she has never met Fitzgerald before, he reminds her that he had cross-examined her before, when she was a defense expert and he was prosecuting a case for the US Attorney’s office in New York. [Washington Post, 10/27/2006]
Judge Skeptical of Loftus - Walton is skeptical of Loftus throughout the hearing, and repeatedly questions her about her stance that jurors have trouble using “common sense” to determine the effect of memory on witness testimony. Fitzgerald wants Bjork’s testimony disallowed (see September 7, 2006), saying the testimony of such a memory expert would be “confusing, misleading, and prejudicial,” and would unnecessarily delay the proceedings. [MSNBC, 10/26/2006]
Former Prosecutor: Very 'Difficult to Trip Up an Expert Witness' - Former prosecutor Christy Hardin Smith, writing for the progressive blog FireDogLake, writes, “I cannot begin to tell you how difficult it is to trip up an expert witness on the stand, especially when you are doing cross-examination of someone who is considered to be a top expert in the field and who has had courtroom experience in prior cases for similar research material.” [Christy Hardin Smith, 10/27/2006] In November, the judge will disallow Bjork’s testimony (see November 2, 2006).
Judge Reggie Walton disallows the attempt by Lewis Libby’s defense team to employ a “memory expert” as an expert witness on Libby’s behalf (see January 31, 2006, July 31, 2006, September 7, 2006, and October 26, 2006). Walton rules that the studies to be cited by the witness, Dr. Robert Bjork, cannot be used because:
the studies mostly pertain to eyewitness identification and don’t fit the facts of the case;
most of the 13 points of “memory principles” Bjork will cite will be easy enough for jurors to figure out on their own; and
Libby did not prove that traditional cross-examination of government witnesses would not be enough to establish the defense’s contention that he suffers from memory lapses (see January 31, 2006).
Walton finds that Bjork’s testimony would be a “waste of time,” and could mislead and confuse a jury. Libby’s attorneys had argued that many jurors have a false impression of how memory works, and a “memory expert” could clarify the matter for them. But Walton writes, “[T]he average juror may not understand the scientific basis and labels attached to causes for memory error.” However, jurors encounter the “frailties of memory” as a “commonplace matter of course” and do not need the guidance of a memory expert to use their “common sense” in the understanding of how memory works. “[T]he jury, for themselves, can assess whether a witness’s recollection of an earlier conversation is accurate.” [US District Court for the District of Columbia, 11/2/2006 ; MSNBC, 11/2/2006] Criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt wonders if Walton “has not just handed Libby his first legitimate issue for appeal… [i]t would have been safer for the government if the judge had allowed the testimony.” [Jeralyn Merritt, 11/2/2006]
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