Several key witnesses in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman have changed their original stories since first being interviewed by law enforcement, according to news reports about recently released evidence in the case. Some analysts cited in the media speculated that three of those revised accounts might hurt the shooter’s claims of self-defense as the second-degree murder prosecution goes through the Florida court system.
Experts in the field, however, have noted that later recollections — which could be impacted by external factors such as publicity, for example — are thought to be less reliable than earlier memories. And the addition of post-event information into the memory reconstruction process, normally unbeknownst to the person, is one reason why psychologists believe that eyewitness testimony can often be unreliable.
“To fill in gaps in memory, the eyewitness relies upon his or her expectation, attitudes, prejudices, bias, and prior knowledge,” explained University of North Dakota forensic psychologist Richard Wise. “Furthermore, information supplied to an eyewitness after a crime ... by the police, prosecutor, other eyewitnesses, media, etc., can alter an eyewitness's memory of the crime."
Once that happens, Wise told the site Life's Little Mysteries, those witnesses generally do not even realize that their memories of the event have been changed. Not only do they feel confident that they are remembering the incident accurately, it also becomes very hard or even impossible to restore their original memories about it, he explained.
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Photo: George Zimmerman, center, is directed by a Seminole County Deputy and his attorney Mark O'Mara during a court hearing on April 12, 2012, in Sanford, Fla.: AP Images