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Why police tapes of George Zimmerman may be key to his defense (+video)

The tapes, released Wednesday, recount George Zimmerman's version of events the evening he shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. He said Trayvon initiated a fight – and who starts an attack is key under Florida's Stand Your Ground law.

By Patrik JonssonStaff writer / June 21, 2012

In this Feb. 27 image taken from a Sanford Police video posted on a website called gzlegalcase.com by George Zimmerman's defense team, Zimmerman speaks to investigators, (not shown) at the scene of Trayvon Martin's fatal shooting a day later giving police a blow-by-blow account of his fight with the teen.

Sanford Police video via Zimmerman Defense Team/AP

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Newly released evidence in the Trayvon Martin murder trial shows the alleged killer, George Zimmerman, telling police that the unarmed teenager followed him, ambushed him, and said, while pummeling Mr. Zimmerman, “You’re going to die tonight.”

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George Zimmerman tells Sanford, Florida, police detectives what happened the night he shot Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman faces second-degree murder charges for shooting Trayvon in Sanford, Fla., in late February. Prosecutors say he “profiled” the 17-year-old boy, followed him against the advice of a 911 dispatcher, “confronted” Trayvon, and illegally shot him in an ensuing struggle.

The case set off a febrile national debate about racial profiling and gun laws when authorities initially did not charge Zimmerman, as Trayvon’s parents, civil rights leaders, and activists sought “Justice for Trayvon.”

Also on Wednesday, the Sanford police chief who oversaw the case, Bill Lee, was fired after local officials determined he had lost the trust of the city. Mr. Lee had defended his department’s decision to let Zimmerman go free, citing the state’s Stand Your Ground law and saying police had few reasons to disbelieve his claims of self-defense. 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) subsequently appointed a special prosecutor to reexamine the case, and 44 days after Trayvon’s death, that prosecutor, Angela Corey, filed a second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman.

The foundation of the prosecution’s case is that Zimmerman willfully broke the law by instigating and prosecuting an action against a minor who was unarmed and doing nothing wrong.

But the story that Zimmerman told the police the night of the shooting and the next day, captured on audio and videotapes and made public Wednesday, is much different. It presents a scenario that could be germane to the defense strategy: that, in Florida, a defendant can invoke Stand Your Ground, or no duty to retreat, as a defense even if an interaction occurred between the defendant and the victim before the shooting, so long as the defendant didn’t initiate the attack.

"Although Zimmerman was possibly negligent, irresponsible, and exercised poor judgment, it was not illegal for him to follow Martin, carry a gun when doing so or even ignore the opinion of the civilian 911 dispatcher when advised,” writes Mark NeJame, a well-known defense attorney from Florida, in an op-ed for CNN

In the tapes, Zimmerman can be seen and heard telling police he called 911 to “report a suspicious person” loitering near the back door of a condo that had previously been broken into.

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