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Memories of drunk victims may not be less reliable: researchers

2 August 2017

Victims of sexual assault who were drunk at the time of the incident probably have a less complete recollection of the event, but what they do remember is no less accurate than evidence of a sober complainer, according to researchers in England. 

Experts from the Universities of Leicester and Birmingham have presented their findings following a two year British Academy funded project into the effects of alcohol on memory and guidance on how police officers can interview rape complainants who were intoxicated at the time of assault.

A substantial number of women are sexually victimised each year in the UK. Many of these attacks occur whilst the victim is under the influence of alcohol, and these cases can present challenges when prosecuting.

Dr Anna Carline from the University of Leicester’s School of Law said: “Research indicates that acute intoxication can reduce a victim’s capacity to encode and consolidate memories about the event. Consequently, rape complainants who were intoxicated compared to sober during the crime will tend to provide less information overall.

“However, research also indicates that victims who were acutely intoxicated during sexual assault can provide forensically relevant testimony. In particular, although intoxicated complainants will provide less information overall, the testimony they provide is no less accurate compared to sober complainants.”

Dr Heather Flowe from the University of Birmingham added: “The results indicate that investigators should conduct interviews with intoxicated complainants, focusing on procedures that help support the victim during the investigative interview, and areas in which the complainant is capable of providing accurate testimony.” 

The paper supporting the findings is still to be published.

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