Zimmerman trial: Prosecutors can call him a 'vigilante,' judge says

With opening statements set for Monday, the judge ruled prosecutors can use loaded language, such as 'wanna-be cop,' to describe Zimmerman, but that they must avoid the term 'racial profiling.'

Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/AP
In Sanford, Fla., Friday, Judge Debra Nelson addresses concerns from the state and defense that need to be settled before opening arguments next week in George Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court. Mr. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

A Florida judge on Friday rejected a motion from George Zimmerman’s lawyers to censor prosecutors, ruling that the state is perfectly free to use charged references like “wanna-be cop” and “vigilante” to describe Trayvon Martin’s killer.

Judge Debra Nelson did, however, tell prosecutors to avoid using the term “racial profiling,” agreeing with defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s theory that the phrase could “infect the jury with a racial component that won’t be supported in fact.”

After nearly two weeks of jury selection, opening statements in the murder trial are expected Monday, leading to a flurry of last-minute maneuvers around what facts, analysis, and legal theories will be allowed in the courtroom.

The motion by Mr. O’Mara to censor the prosecution isn’t all that unusual for defense attorneys looking, at the very least, for issues on which to base an appeal in case they lose. The motion was also intended, as O’Mara said, “to try to separate [the facts of the case in the courtroom] from what everybody else outside the courtroom wants it to be.”

But it does hint at the defense’s potentially greatest challenge: proving that the actions that Mr. Zimmerman took before he killed Martin, an unarmed black teenager, meet the definition of “reasonable” in the eyes of a jury made up mostly of mothers.

That underlying question has fueled debate about the case from the start. It was brought to national attention by massive protests after police in Sanford, Fla., refused to arrest Zimmerman, saying he was protected by the state’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law that says there’s no “duty to retreat” before using deadly force in self-defense, even in a public place.

Zimmerman shot Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, after getting out of his car to follow him against the advise of a 911 dispatcher. Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense after Martin attacked him, broke his nose, and bashed his head into a sidewalk.

The case divided public opinion between those who saw evidence of racial discrimination and others who believed Zimmerman acted within his rights as a person looking out for his neighborhood. While the racial issue has been complicated by the fact that Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic, not white, the run-up to the trial has also contributed to the national debate about liberalized gun laws and the changing roles of guns in society.

In denying the defense's motion, Judge Nelson pointed out that if prosecutors set up an argument without providing evidence, the defense will have a grand opportunity in closing arguments to show how the state failed to prove its case with facts.

Among the terms the prosecution will be able to use to describe Zimmerman are “wanna-be cop,” “self-appointed neighborhood watch captain,” and “vigilante.” 

The defense’s concern about the jury being able to hear such terms to describe Zimmerman underscores the extent to which most jurors are not only aware of the high-profile case, but in many cases can recite specific details about the night Martin was killed, the ensuing protests, and Zimmerman’s eventual arrest, 44 days later. How each side frames those publicized facts into their respective narratives will help determine how the jury rules.

While the jury will swear an oath to be impartial and consider Zimmerman innocent until proven guilty, the facts of the case can’t help but force them into a mindset where they’d have to explore their own perceptions and potential biases around guns, race, and neighborhood security, legal experts say.

For that reason alone, the six-woman jury, meanwhile, will be a hard nut for both sides to crack. While it’s widely believed that women may sympathize with those who try to protect neighborhoods, they may also empathize with Martin's parents, who lost a son to what several potential jurors told the court amounted to a senseless and avoidable series of events.

“I think it’s probably a jury that neither side is really thrilled about, because there’s all kinds of intangibles going one way or another that could harm either side, and it’s kind of a 'crapshoot' as to how it’s going to play out,” says Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville.

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