Elizabeth Loftus, a law professor at University of California at Irvine, said of the Zimmerman case, "There was so much media coverage that it could be that the new information that Trayvon Martin had died, that he was unarmed, the new information about the outcry and outrage, had the potential for contaminating and distorting the witnesses' memory."
Although the eyewitnesses' earlier accounts of that fateful night — descriptions that were generally less damning of Zimmerman — might be closer to the truth, they aren't what the jury will hear during the trial.
On the witness stand
According to Clifford Fishman, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, a jury tends to accept as accurate the version of events a witness describes when testifying — "even if that version is inconsistent in many significant ways with that witness's earlier statements." In other words, legally, the later versions of memories reign supreme. The burden falls to the defense attorneys to point out the weaknesses or inconsistencies in the witness's testimony at trial, and to cast doubt in the minds of the jurors about the accuracy of the witness's descriptions. [What is Reasonable Doubt?]
The prosecutors can retaliate by disputing the witness's earlier accounts; to do this, they might demonstrate that the police had initially asked leading questions or otherwise influenced the witnesses' statements in a way that made them more sympathetic of Zimmerman. In that case, the witnesses' later descriptions could be proved more trustworthy.
Furthermore, it could be that later additions to accounts, as with the witness who initially did not know whether she had seen Zimmerman or Martin on top during their fight, but later named Zimmerman, it could be that her fuller memory really had been triggered by seeing Zimmerman on television. "Appropriate cues given afterwards can retrieve additional reliable information that was not originally retrieved," Tversky noted.
Either way, Loftus said, "It looks like these witnesses are going to have some explaining to do. If they use version two of their stories in court, one attorney or the other is going have access to version one. And that can make the case against Zimmerman weaker."
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