Trayvon Martin case: Zimmerman studied self-defense law, witness says

A college professor testified Wednesday that George Zimmerman learned in his criminal justice class about Florida's self-defense law. Why prosecutors in the Trayvon Martin shooting are keen to establish that.

Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel/AP
Defense attorney Don West (l.) and defendant George Zimmerman listen to testimony during Zimmerman's trial in Seminole circuit court, in Sanford, Fla., Wednesday, July 3. A professor at Seminole County College who taught a criminal justice course testified that Zimmerman learned about Florida's self-defense law in his criminal justice class.

What George Zimmerman knew or didn't know of Florida's particular laws about claiming self-defense moved front and center Wednesday, during his trial for fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, on a rainy February evening in 2012 in Sanford, Fla. 

Prosecutors sought to persuade the jury that Mr. Zimmerman was in fact knowledgeable about Florida self-defense law at the time of the shooting. A professor at Seminole County College who taught a criminal justice course testified that he often talked about the state's self-defense law in his class, in which Zimmerman, an aspiring police officer, was an A student in 2010.

Zimmerman told police he acted in self-defense when he shot Trayvon. Prosecutors' line of questioning goes to the issue of whether the defendant would have a sophisticated enough grasp of pertinent laws to cast the shooting in a light that was most favorable to himself. As Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman put it to Orlando’s Fox 35 news station on Wednesday, it is meant to illuminate whether Zimmerman had the “wherewithal to put together a story that might exempt him from prosecution.”

Seminole County College professor Alexis Carter testified that he taught students that Florida’s self-defense laws state that fear of injury, not actual injury, is all that is required to invoke one’s right to self-defense, including use of a deadly weapon.

Even some police chiefs and prosecutors struggle to understand the nuances of self-defense law in Florida after the state enacted the first-in-the-nation "Stand Your Ground" law in 2005, Joëlle Anne Moreno, a Florida International University law professor and a member of a task force that reviewed Florida’s self-defense laws, told the Monitor last year. Though the Stand Your Ground law hasn't been raised specifically in the Zimmerman trial, it was cited by Sanford police in deciding not to press charges against Zimmerman after the shooting.

Zimmerman told Fox News’ Sean Hannity in an interview last year that he had no knowledge of Florida’s new self-defense laws.

The prosecution, which has charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, is contending that the defendant profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal, followed him in a truck, confronted him on foot, and then shot him after a brief fight “because he wanted to.” In taped testimony played in court this week, Zimmerman told police detectives he was returning to his vehicle when Trayvon jumped out of a bush and attacked him, first knocking him down with a blow to the nose and then beating his head against a concrete sidewalk.

The extent of Zimmerman’s injuries – and whether they pointed to risk of “death or great bodily harm” – was also examined this week during testimony. "Death or great bodily harm" is the standard for using lethal force in self-defense, under Florida law.

Zimmerman had several cuts on the back of his head and a dislocated nose. Several experts called by prosecutors testified that his injuries weren’t consistent with Zimmerman’s contention that he feared for his life.

While Sanford detectives testified this week that Zimmerman’s demeanor was consistent with his explanation of what happened, police have from the beginning had questions about inconsistencies in his accounts, including his description of the fight as a life-and-death struggle and physical evidence that suggests Zimmerman may not have been in actual mortal peril.

The defense team said the state’s introduction of Zimmerman’s school records as evidence amounted to “a fishing expedition,” and it vowed to file a motion to introduce Trayvon’s school records. Judge Debra Nelson had previously ruled that the teenager's records are not admissible unless the prosecution opens the door.

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