Trayvon Martin as pot smoker: What Zimmerman defense stands to gain
The judge overseeing the George Zimmerman trial has ruled that the defense can discuss how marijuana use might have affected Trayvon Martin on the night of his fatal encounter with the defendant. The strategy serves several purposes.
On what may be the last day of testimony in the trial of George Zimmerman, who is charged with killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin on a rainy Florida evening in early 2012, jurors are expected to hear Wednesday about the small amount of marijuana found in the teenager's blood – evidence that allows the defense to argue that pot-smoking could have contributed to a deadly encounter that eventually made news around the world.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Florida vs. George Zimmerman: Case closed?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In a case in which racial tensions and contention over America's gun culture provide a backdrop, the marijuana testimony would prominently introduce another cultural flash point concerning drug use and perceptions of drug users, especially male African-American drug users.
“Pot before shot,” a Drudge Report headline proclaimed, after Florida circuit court Judge Debra Nelson reversed a previous ruling on Monday, agreeing that the defense can present to the six-woman jury testimony concerning Trayvon’s marijuana use.
Medical examiner Shiping Bao testified last week that he had concluded that the amount of THC – the psychoactive compound in marijuana – in Trayvon’s body “could have no effect or some effect” on his behavior the night of the encounter with Mr. Zimmerman.
With Judge Nelson’s reversal, the defense has an opening to try to cast the 17-year-old's marijuana use as a moral marker – to present Trayvon not as a baby-faced boy but as a more menacing and impulsive character who may have deserved what he got for punching and beating another citizen simply trying to protect his neighborhood.
In that way, say criminologists watching the trial, racial stereotypes around drug use – the black, hoodie-wearing pot smoker as menacing, the white pot smoker as hapless but harmless – could blur the jury’s impressions about what happened the night of the fatal shooting.
“There are only two possibilties regarding drugs: One is that that people are making the claim that marijuana made Trayvon Martin violent, which would be more legitimate if I’d ever once heard of stoners being violent,” says Alex Tepperman, a University of Florida doctoral student whose paper "Half-Baked: Weed, Race and the Demonization of Trayvon Martin" was presented at a conference in April. “The other claim is that marijuana use makes Travyon Martin immoral and suspicious, and should bring up questions about other activities in his life. In other words, who are we to attack Zimmerman for being suspicious of this morally loose young person?”
Trayvon’s parents and the state of Florida say Zimmerman exhibited “ill will” toward Trayvon, which colored his decision to use his gun to kill the teenager, whom he had followed and confronted, believing he was a potential criminal. Travyon was returning on Feb. 26, 2012, to the home where his dad was staying in Sanford, Fla.’s Retreat at Twin Lakes, toting a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea.
On trial for second-degree murder, Zimmerman told police that he shot Trayvon in self-defense after the teenager slugged him in the nose and beat his head on the sidewalk. “Trayvon Martin caused his own death,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara said Friday.
Florida self-defense law says a “reasonable” person can defend himself with deadly force if he fears for his life or great bodily harm. The state says Trayvon is the one who had the right to self-defense after being pursued by an armed stranger.
Nelson has barred most testimony about Trayvon’s social media activities, which included diatribes about pot smoking and street fighting.