As George Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial moves into its third week, cable news outlets are enlisting scores of legal scholars in an effort to formally assess the truthfulness and admissibility of the testimonies.

So far, Rachel Jeantel, Chris Serino, and Zimmerman himself have all been accused of fudging details, shuffling timelines or prevaricating before the jury, calling their character into question. Particular scrutiny has been aimed at a 2012 interview, where Zimmerman claims to be unfamiliar with Florida's stand-your-ground law — the self-defense statute his attorneys are banking on.

The consensus among court reporters is that the video excerpt allows jurors to hear Zimmerman lie, as the statute was covered extensively in a criminal litigation class he aced in 2010. Experts point to the cavalier demeanor and menacing ease with which Zimmerman tells the interviewer that he had not heard about stand-your-ground law before the investigation of the February 2012 confrontation.

To catch someone lying is undeniably a visceral, uncomfortable discovery that usually prompts a personal reassessment of the person's fundamental character and reliability. But can we infer guilt from these narrative inconsistencies? Can we dismiss the wavering segments of Jeantel's and Serino's testimonies as sheer fabrication?

Memories Lost And Found In Hindsight

Shakespeare had some interesting thoughts on the subject. "Sonnet 30" famously imagines recollection itself as a process similar to a trial — a tortuous investigation, filled with compromise and conflicting details.

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past"

The poem reminds us that although our memory may seem firm and reliable, it is not necessarily accurate. Instead, our memories are subjective constructs derived from oblique perspectives, partial information and necessary conjecture.

In this sense, the mind is not a mere observer, but an active creator.

Recent years have seen a surge in lawsuits and scholarship where the accuracy of a plaintiff's own memory is being questioned. Many of these cases involve individuals who, after a therapy program, uncover "repressed' memories of past sexual abuse. Civil suits are now brought decades after the incidents took place, with courts deferring to the current iteration of "delayed discovery" as outlined in Poffenberger v. Risser. This doctrine basically prevents the statute of limitation from kicking in until the abuse is mentally "available" to the victim.

A slew of psychological studies have been devoted to the fundamental validity of these memories. Sigmeund Freud's own definition of "repression" is notoriously sprawling, and a major part of the problem is figuring out the actual mechanics of the cerebral processes whereby memories are lost and recovered.

Now That You Mention It, I Do Remember That

Several scientific studies indicate that the mind is susceptible to new, post-event information that can effectively alter the timeline and the details of the event, particularly in cases where trauma is involved. Many of these studies involve the simulation of a complex event — such as a car accident or a violent crime — that participants are asked to remember. Half of them then receive new, misleading information about the simulated event. In virtually all of these studies, the participants who received the phony information have less accurate memories than those in the control group who did not receive any additional information.

Another example is an experiment conducted at the University of Washington, where subjects were asked to review a collection of four stories from their childhood. While three of them were actual events provided by relatives and friends of the subject, the fourth story was a fabrication that involved getting lost in a public place and experiencing some degree of trauma. Several interviews were then scheduled to discuss and rate the clarity with which the subject recalled the events.

Researchers found that when it came to the fabricated story, the reported "clarity level" among those who claimed to remember it tended to increase between the interviews. The results suggested that some participants not only believed themselves to remember the trauma, but actually formed false, retrospective memories that seemed to ossify as the study progressed.

The phenomenon appears to be at play in far more relaxed settings as well. Jimmy Kimmel Live! Recently introduced the now viral "Lie Witness News" segment, where Hollywood pedestrians are asked to comment on political developments, natural disasters, or sports events that haven't actually taken place. Many respond with surprising levels of in-depth details, in spite of the fact that the issues are entirely fictional. Part of the comedy is the unflinching aplomb with which some of the interviewees "lie" in front of the camera.

Yet, in light of the aforementioned psychological research, it could be argued that these people cannot properly be described as "liars" at all. What if the nerve-wracking prospect of being clueless on national television simply induces a light sense of trauma, where the mind suddenly becomes more sensitive to external influence?

This would at least explain the ridiculously detailed accounts some of them offer reporters.

Are We All Liars?

Inconsistencies in testimonies are not necessarily conscious lies nefariously crafted by the witness. Memories are volatile, subject to change and subconscious bias. When Judge Nelson instructs the jurors to stay away from all media during recess, it's not only to prevent jurors from letting others know about their thoughts on the case. Judge Nelson knows that in order to assure a fair trial, jurors must not be exposed to external opinion or legally inadmissible details. She knows that the integrity of the jurors' own understanding and memory is of utmost importance.

When assessing the truthfulness of a vacillating testimony, it is important to keep these psychological phenomena in mind. In a criminal trial like George Zimmerman's, one must remember that most people involved have been traumatized to a degree.

In these cases, it is useful to recall Shakespeare's characterization of memory. Zimmerman, Jeantel, Serino and all the other witnesses are most likely involved in a silent, personal "trial," where they continuously attempt to make sense of their memories amid the constant flux of new information. For this reason, it will always be exceedingly problematic to link narrative inconsistencies to conscious perfidy or malicious intent.


Loftus, Elizabeth (1996) Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 24

Memon, A. and Young, M. (1997) "Desperately seeking evidence: The recovered memory debate." Legal & Criminological Psychology, 2.