George Zimmerman prosecution leaves jury to untangle lies and justification

The State of Florida rested its case Friday against George Zimmerman, on trial for killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin last year. The state faces long odds in winning a conviction.

Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/AP
George Zimmerman stands next to one of his defense attorneys, Don West, during his trial in Seminole circuit court, Friday, July 5, 2013, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

The waning moments of the George Zimmerman trial on Friday wielded the most significant insights yet into how the state and defense view the controversial case of an unarmed black teenager shot to death by a zealous neighborhood watch captain.

Mark O’Mara, defending Mr. Zimmerman against a second degree murder charge for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, came right out and said that “Trayvon Martin caused his own death” by punching Mr. Zimmerman, a move which the defense argued gave Zimmerman self-defense immunity under Florida law.

The prosecution says the state’s witnesses have raised enough questions about Zimmerman’s character and credibility – specifically an apparent lie on national TV about his knowledge of Florida’s landmark self-defense laws – for the jury to convict.

“There are two people involved [in this case]: one of them is dead, one of them is a liar,” Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei told Judge Debra Nelson on Day 18 of the trial.

The comments came out of the jury’s earshot and during a motion by the defense to acquit, a fairly standard maneuver that in many ways outlined closing arguments as well as any future appeals case. Judge Nelson denied the motion, leaving the defense to call its first two witnesses.

The case rose to prominence last year after Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, hired a high-profile publicity lawyer to protest the decision by the Sanford Police Department to not arrest Zimmerman for killing their son.

Ensuing “million hoodie marches” in solidarity with Trayvon and the hoodie he wore on the night he was killed raised racial aspects of the case that still chafe at its edges, while others saw the case as a landmark self-defense argument embodying the expansion by 22 states of the right to defend oneself with deadly force in public places – so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws.

So far, it’s been a riveting up-and-down trial that has seen a Skype call with an expert witness get pranked by viewers, a tense and sometimes confounding standoff with Martin’s 19-year-old friend Rachel Jeantel, the taking of the stand by the mothers of the two people involved in the deadly Feb. 26, 2012 altercation, and eyewitnesses who couldn’t agree on who was the aggressor that night.

Two of Zimmerman’s college professors were also called, both testifying that Zimmerman, who took criminal justice courses at Seminole County College in hopes of becoming a prosecutor or federal agent, was an A student in a class where Florida’s self-defense laws were often discussed.

The state was also able to introduce some salient hard facts that may shed light on the dynamics of the fight. While some have speculated that Trayvon was 6-2 and towered over Zimmerman, the medical examiner testified that Trayvon was 5-11 and weighed 158 pounds at the time of death. At the time, Zimmerman, who stands 5-7, weighed around 185 pounds.

Both the state and the defense are claiming that the people they represent had the right to invoke self-defense: Zimmerman after getting punched in the face, Trayvon after being followed on foot by a “creepy” Zimmerman, as Trayvon told his friend on the phone.

“The central question is, really, which individual is really defending themselves,” Mr. Mantei, the prosecutor, said. “That is the question the jury should answer.”

Analysts agree that the defense will in the next section focus on the immediate moments that led up to the gunshot, where O’Mara says only barebones circumstantial evidence – hardly enough to convict – suggests Zimmerman exhibited ill will or turned a depraved mind toward Trayvon, the prerequisites for a jury to find someone guilty of second degree murder.

Although Judge Nelson refused to throw the case out on Friday, O’Mara laid out his central contention: that the hard evidence ultimately doesn’t contradict Zimmerman’s assertions.

Whatever Zimmerman’s internal logic in pursuing Trayvon, O’Mara has suggested, it wasn’t illegal for him to get out of his car in his own neighborhood, it wasn’t illegal for him to carry a properly registered gun, and it wasn’t illegal for him to defend himself after getting punched and having his head pounded against a sidewalk, with injuries recorded by forensic photographs.

One of the strongest eyewitnesses, John Good, approached the two fighting men, and said he saw Martin raining blows down on Zimmerman, who had his back on the ground. Mr. Good, however, said he couldn’t tell if any of the blows were really landing.

Zimmerman has said he and Martin grappled for the gun before he turned it and fired point blank into Martin’s chest, striking his heart.

“In conversations with friends and family, and judging by comments on social media, there seems to be a consensus that the majority of the state’s witnesses were not helpful to the prosecution’s case against Zimmerman,” Fox News’ Tamara Holder writes in a column. “In some instances, it appears that the witnesses may have even helped the defense.”

So far, the defense suggests much of the rest of the trial will be tete-a-tete: for every witness that supports the prosecution’s case, they’ll introduce a witness to contradict it. After Martin’s mother and brother identified a scream on a 911 tape as Trayvon, Zimmerman’s mother and uncle – an Orange County sheriff’s deputy – testified that the voice belonged to Zimmerman.

Throughout testimony, prosecutors have been challenged in their attempt to paint Zimmerman as an overzealous wanna-be cop, in part because its own witnesses from the Sanford Police Department suggested that “George was very professional, a little meek, really wanted to make the community better.”

And the star witness, Rachel Jeantel, clashed with defense attorneys, suggesting some of attorney Don West’s inquiries were “retarded,” and mumbled many of her answers, to the jury’s and court recorder’s consternation.

Her testimony, however, is the most powerful: On the phone with Trayvon before he was shot, she said she heard Trayvon say, “Why are you following me for?” before a heavy-breathing man said, “What you doing around here.” Trayvon, she testified, then said, “Get off, get off.”

Testimony from Ms. Jeantel that Zimmerman initiated the incident could resonate with the jury, which is faced with a conundrum: If they decide Zimmerman had legitimate cause to defend himself, would they also then be saying it’s okay for nondeputized citizens to follow strangers and shoot them if they suddenly counterpunch against their unknown pursuer?

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