Interview with Julia Korkman

Dr Julia Korkman is a senior programme specialist at the UN-affiliated European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control, the elected president of the European Association of Psychology and Law, and author of Memory Dependent, last year’s strongest non-fiction debut, and she answers HLA’s questions in a dedicated interview.

Memory Dependent is one of HLA’s top non-fiction titles, that approaches criminal investigations from an unexpected angle: Korkman highlights how people are used to thinking of their memory as an exact image of what they experienced, almost like a surveillance camera. This has important consequences for criminal investigations: the first, that witnesses are the key to the resolution of a case, as they are expected to provide reliable accounts of what happened, and the second that, if a witness is proved wrong by other facts or other witnesses, then someone must be lying. Except, is that really how memory and investigations work?

Memory Dependent has marked your literary debut, and it has been received very favorably in Finland and Sweden. The public’s interest for true crime has been on the rise for the past years, but Memory Dependent breaks the mold by combining real-life criminal cases with academic research, filling an important gap in the literature for the general audience. Miscarriages of justice are not new to journalistic or literary scrutiny, but too little has been written about what went wrong in investigations that led to wrongful convictions, and even less about what steps have been taken to improve the situation. Could you start from the beginning, and tell us about your current work and how you got the idea for the book?

I have been working concretely with criminal justice processes both as an expert witness for courts in Finland and Sweden, and for many years as a forensic psychologist with a forensic psychology center for children and adolescents, in which capacity I conducted investigative interviews in cases assessed as particularly demanding by the police. I have also done research in the area of forensic and legal psychology throughout my career and am the elected president of the European Association of Psychology and Law. I am currently working as a senior programme specialist at the UN-affiliated European Institute for Crime Prevention and Control or HEUNI.

I started working with these issues in the early 2000s, when writing my PhD on child investigative interviewing in cases of suspected sexual abuse. It struck me how high the expectations on children’s memory were in the legal processes. Over the years I have come to realize this is not only true for children but also for adults – the legal system is really not that well adapted to how human beings function. Over the years I have been conducting research and working with cases related to eyewitness identifications, investigative interviewing, memory in the legal context, credibility assessments and investigating crimes such as sexual offenses, interpersonal violence and human trafficking as well as asylum processes. I have also collaborated with agencies investigating international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity and across all these contexts, memory has a crucial role – and is poorly understood and not handled with enough care. This is what I wanted to write about.

How did the writing process look like? Did you enjoy branching out into writing for the general public? Was there something you especially enjoyed writing about?

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed writing this book! I have written numerous scientific articles and book chapters and some popular columns in a lifestyle magazine in Finland and also kept diary all my life, but this was the first attempt at writing something for the general public, and I enjoyed it more all the time. During the course of writing, I actually felt more and more free in expressing myself and my own thoughts. Leaving out the very exact referencing that is obligatory in academic writing felt incredibly deliberating! 

I think what I enjoyed the most was diving into the historic witch hunt cases. It is amazing that much of the judicial reasoning and the witness accounts from these cases are preserved and can be read still today, and fascinating to see that while the suspicions of that time considered events nobody would believe in today – like children riding to satanist feasts with the devil, sitting on the stomachs of cows flying upside down – many of the other issues were very much alike things we see today. For instance, young children were suggestible then as they are today and easily convinced of experiences we now know cannot have happened, by parents fearing for their safety. Also, the demeanor of victims influenced how credible they were assessed to be, a phenomenon now well established in research and known as the emotional victim effect. One woman accused to be a witch was found guilty because she was so “cold”, something that was considered suspicious for women. I recently read new studies showing the exact same phenomenon to be true today; women are expected to show emotions when describing unpleasant or traumatic experiences – an expectation that is not grounded in science.

Another thing I really enjoyed was writing the book in both Finnish and Swedish. I am from a Swedish-speaking family but practically bilingual and most of my work has been in Finnish – except for the academic writing, which naturally is in English. Finnish is a very different language compared to Swedish and I think the text benefited from the translating process. I wrote some parts in Finnish first, others in Swedish, and when translating I processed and refined the text. Time consuming yes, but deeply satisfying. 

Cases like the Rignano case in Italy, the Outreau affair in France, the Bjugn scandal in Norway, and the McMartin preschool case in the US, with wrongful confessions by several minors, received plenty of attention and media coverage, and some later became the subject of successful works of non-fiction. However, it is only recently that a European registry on exoneration cases (EUREX) has come to be. Can you tell us something about its activity, and about what you’ve gathered on cases that later led to exonerations? Are there common elements coming to the fore you’d like to highlight?

The EUREX, launched as late as in 2023 by a group of legal psychology scholars, shows that miscarriages of justice do occur also in Europe and expose the most typical reasons for these. The findings are very much in line with similar undertakings elsewhere, such as in the US. Innocent people have been sentenced due to false confessions, inappropriate use or interpretation of forensic evidence, false accusations and flawed eyewitness identification procedures. In most of these cases, understanding how memory works and acting appropriately on that knowledge, would have been a significant protective factor against the miscarriages of justice that occurred.

In Memory Dependent, you analyze how interviewing techniques have a decisive impact on the criminal justice outcome, and advocate for the implementation of appropriate and science-backed interviewing techniques. The United Nations have agreed on a series of principles that should be the ground for interviewing techniques, the Mendez Principles, and now support the ImpleMendez project. What is your take on the subject, and what is the current state of things in Finland and in the Nordics?

The Mendez Principles advocate for evidence-based investigative interviewing for all parties in the legal processes, be they victims, witnesses or suspects and set a clear path forward for countries on how to implement these changes. The situation in Europe and the Nordics is actually quite varied, with most countries not doing that great – including Finland, at least in terms of the absence of evidence-based investigative interviewing training for all police investigators. Norway is the model country in this regard, building on a longer tradition in the UK. In both countries, the change was brought on by terrible miscarriages of justice. While it is good that lessons can be learned through mistakes, it would be depressing if we were not able to learn from mistakes made in other countries. The ImpleMendez project, in which I am happy to be actively participating in, is joining forces in different countries and building a common knowledge base with input both from academic research and professionals working in the field.

You have recently attended a panel discussion in connection with the theatre play Prima Facie being on stage in Helsinki, and have written an introductory comment on the theater’s page before the event. Prima Facie is a play by Suzie Miller where a young and promising defense lawyer, Tessa, finds herself on the opposite side of the legal procedure after she is sexually assaulted. In both the panel and the comment, you have had the chance to talk about the stereotypes surrounding victims, and how this can impact the judicial outcome. Can you elaborate on the topic?

As mentioned in conjunction with the witch hunts, this expectation on victim demeanor is a rather solid finding and something many rape victims, for instance, face. However, persons who have been through traumatic experiences may react and behave in numerous ways and their reactions may change over time. In the book, I give examples of several court cases where victims of intimate partner violence or sexual offenses have been assessed with what occurred to me as the oddest expectations. A Swedish rape victim, was disbelieved by the lay judges because she seemed nervous and “not relaxed, as she could have been expected to be if her account was true”. I think the expectation that a rape victim, attending their own trial, should be relaxed, is just ironic. A Finnish rape victim was disbelieved – again by lay judges – because she had participated in a tv-series a few months after the alleged rape. The lay judges considered this to go against “common life experience”, which sort of makes you wonder what kind of life experience they have! May it be said that in Finland and Sweden, we have a combination of both professional and lay judges and I believe that there are much bigger problems with the assessments by lay judges. 

What are your plans for the near future? What can the readers and the academic community expect?

I am in fact working on a next popular book, slowly. Meanwhile, articles are being published constantly, along with more practical writings where I aim to translate the academic research into more practice-oriented briefs – this particularly is a core activity of my work at HEUNI.

On a lighter note: you are also very fond of music, and a very good singer. How do you combine jazz music and forensic research? Do you have any events coming up?

As a matter of fact, I do. I received a grant from the KONE foundation for a concert tour called Songs for the criminal record, in which all the songs are new arrangements of well-known songs about crimes or legal processes and short TED-talk-like presentations on the topics are given between the songs. We have numerous concerts booked throughout Finland in the autumn and a record is soon coming up. The concert has been performed in three languages; English, Finnish and Swedish, and we hope to be able to do some gigs in Sweden next year. After the book was published, I have been giving quite a number of talks and trainings in Sweden for professional working with judicial processes. 

Finally, a version of the famous Proust Questionnaire, used by the legendary French journalist Bernard Pivot at the end of every broadcast of his literary television talk show Apostrophes.

What is your favorite word? Melancholy. It has a beautiful sound and a complex meaning.

What is your least favourite word? “like” especially if repeated in absurdum (as it often is)

What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally? Intellectual curiosity

What turns you off? Besser wissers

What is your favorite curse word? Perkele, of course. You don’t need to understand Finnish to get the point!

What sound or noise do you love? Birds singing in the morning

What sound or noise do you hate? Shopping mall music, most often

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Archeology, journalism, opera singing

What profession would you not like to do? Dentist

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? Your mother is waiting for you