If you live in Minnesota, other than the non-stop media coverage about the new Vikings’ stadium, the big news has been non-stop coverage of the Amy Senser homicide trial. She was charged with a lower level of homicide for hitting and killing a man while he put gas in his car on an exit ramp off the freeway in Minneapolis.
During the trial, Ms. Senser’s defense was that she didn’t know she’d hit a human being. Therefore, she couldn’t be guilty of leaving the scene of an accident and failing to report it for several days. Expert testimony provided by the prosecution, showed that if she hit a human, the body would have rolled up on the hood of her car and fallen off to the side–therefore, there’s no way she wouldn’t know that she’d hit someone.
The jury didn’t believe her and found her guilty of the two serious felonies. In the meantime, because I’ve worked for over 30 years as a prosecutor and defense lawyer, many people asked me about the trial. One of the most interesting questions I received was: Do you think Amy Senser lied? And if she did, how could she do that?
I know from my experience and study of psychological research that there are some people in the world who can lie without any hesitation. They’re called sociopaths or psychopaths–meaning they don’t have a conscience like you and me. So, for them lying is not even an issue. Since they don’t care what the truth is and don’t care how it affects anyone else, they can lie convincingly. I don’t know if Amy Senser is a sociopath; I doubt it. So, she probably wasn’t intentionally lying.
Then, how could her story be so different from what the experts say probably happened?
I think it’s easy to explain and I’ve seen in with defendants that I’ve represented. Let me give you a good example. Often, when representing men charged with criminal sexual conduct against children, they usually deny it completely. Even if I show them the evidence, which often is overwhelmingly against them and read the reports with them, they still maintain their innocence. Eventually, it comes out: they say, “I’m not guilty because I’m not that kind of person that could do those horrible things to kids.”
That’s the key to my point about lying. It starts with the normal human tendency in all of us to minimize or explain away things–even when we know we’ve been caught and are guilty. “I was speeding but so was everyone else…” We all want to tell the truth but, at the same time, there’s an unconscious need to avoid punishment so we began to weave excuses in our mind or we even start to remember the events differently. We may not even be aware of this shift in perception. Days or months later, we’re solidly convinced of our innocence.
This is what may have happened to Amy Senser. For months before the trial, the lawyers told her the penalties, the difficulties of the trial, and, in her mind, I’m sure she thought about the fact that she may have actually killed someone. That’s difficult knowledge to carry around so the human mind starts to work on it. Little by little, the mind remembers small facts differently until much later, we’ve convinced ourselves that it didn’t happen the way the evidence shows or the experts say it did. In our mind, we firmly believe that we are innocent.
And if called to testify, we aren’t lying, we’re telling the “new” truth as we remember it.