George Zimmerman speaks, but won’t testify in his defense

The man at the center of the Trayvon Martin murder case told Judge Debra Nelson on Wednesday he will not take the stand – one of several last minute moves by Zimmerman's defense team.

Gary w. Green/Orlando Sentinel/Pool/AP
George Zimmerman (r.) stands during his trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., on Wednesday. Mr. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

In what may be his last utterances in the Trayvon Martin murder trial, former neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman said Wednesday afternoon he had made the decision not to testify in his own defense.

Florida circuit court Judge Debra Nelson asked Mr. Zimmerman if he had been threatened or coerced into not testifying, and the 29-year-old answered no.

Though not unexpected, Zimmerman’s move was one of several last-minute machinations as the high-profile trial winds down, amid concerns by some law enforcement officials in Florida that a not-guilty verdict could cause civic unrest.

Earlier this week, defense attorneys said they’d introduce witnesses to talk about how marijuana use by the 17-year-old Trayvon could have affected his decisionmaking on the night he was killed, but instead the defense put a “use of force” expert on the stand to talk about fight dynamics before resting its case.

The prosecution called back Adam Pollock, the owner of a gym where Zimmerman trained, causing a minor uproar when it suggested he was using his training of Zimmerman as an advertising pitch, thus undermining the credibility of his testimony. Mr. Pollock, ironically, testified for the prosecution, causing Judge Nelson to wonder why the prosecution is trying to impeach its own witness. Pollock ultimately did not retake the stand.

The stakes as the case winds down are high. Now on Day 21, the trial has clarified, but not solidified, the last two minutes of Trayvon’s life, when he got into an altercation with Zimmerman. The defendant had gotten out of his car to follow Trayvon after calling him “suspicious” and “on drugs or something.”

The case inspired widespread rallies and “Million Hoodie Marches” in early 2012, after Sanford, Fla., police refused to charge Zimmerman with a crime, saying they couldn’t counter his self-defense claim. A special state prosecutor indicted him 44 days later. The trial began June 10.

The sequence of events Wednesday did give some clues as to the defense’s thinking as it closed its case. Firstly, Zimmerman testifying on his own behalf may have caused more harm than good, opening himself up to cross-examination about a series of alleged inconsistencies in his version of events.

Zimmerman, through his lawyers, has claimed self-defense, saying Trayvon attacked him, punched him to the ground, and beat his head against a concrete sidewalk. Dennis Root, a private eye and “use of force” expert, testified Wednesday that Zimmerman was a hapless fighter who had few options in the heat of the battle but to use his weapon in self-defense.

Prosecutors say Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a criminal, trailed him, confronted him, and then killed him when the situation turned against him. They assert Trayvon is the one who had the right to defend himself under the law after being followed for two minutes by an armed adult stranger.

According to Doug Keene, an Austin-based jury consultant who has followed the case, the defense ultimately may not have made much headway by bringing up a toxicology report that showed Trayvon had a trace of THC in his system on the night he was killed. A medical examiner had said the amount may have affected his behavior, but scientific studies have failed to show that marijuana has any ties to violent behavior – unless the person is already violent.

The judge had ruled several times against introducing character evidence against Trayvon, but said she would allow more testimony on the trace marijuana because the state’s own witness, medical examiner Shiping Bao, changed his mind about whether the active ingredients in the drug could have influenced what happened on the night of Feb. 26, 2012.

Another decision may have helped the defense to rest before bringing up the pot issue: On Wednesday, the judge barred the introduction of cell phone messages in which Trayvon talked about street fighting. Without that evidence, the marijuana argument may have faltered, Mr. Keene said, given the number of teenagers and adults who report having used the drug at least once.

Late Wednesday, prosecutors wanted to call a new witness to rebut testimony by defense witnesses that Zimmerman “was largely incapable of fighting,” according to assistant state attorney Richard Mantei. The witness, a state alcohol enforcement agent, would testify that Zimmerman attacked him in 2005 during an arrest of several of Zimmerman’s friends at a bar, Mr. Mantei said,

“The state attorney’s office dropped a battery on an officer charge to a misdemeanor,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara argued back. “Eight years ago [Zimmerman] was overarrested for something. It was dismissed outright. Bears no significant … value, both because it's ancient in time, ancient in act, and the way it was handled by system suggests that it was a nonevent even to begin with.”

The new witness may testify Thursday before both sides make their closing arguments and the six-woman jury gets the case.

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