Weighty words, charged atmosphere as Zimmerman trial rests with jury

Lawyers' closing arguments in the George Zimmerman trial invoked the Founding Fathers and Martin Luther King Jr. – portentous words for a high-stakes case. Jurors began deliberations Friday afternoon.

Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP/Pool
Defense counsel Mark O'Mara, right. talks to prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda during the George Zimmerman trial at the Seminole County Circuit Court in Sanford, Fla., Friday.

Lawyers in the George Zimmerman murder trial cited America's Founding Fathers, a civil rights icon, and the US Constitution on Friday as they sought to make last impressions with the jury, which is now deliberating a verdict that will define justice for Trayvon Martin, a slain black teenager, and his family.

The lawyers' portentous references, made in closing arguments of an emotional month-long trial, are intended to frame the case for a jury of six women – five whites and one Hispanic, five of whom are mothers. But the references also alluded to the sensitive political and racial issues that have swirled around the case.

In his appeal to the jury, defense attorney Mark O’Mara cited John Adams on the presumption of innocence and Thomas Jefferson on the importance of citizen juries before laying out his contention that Mr. Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch captain, is “factually innocent” of murder.

“I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution,” Mr. O’Mara said, quoting Jefferson. Then he told jurors, “You are living the Constitution.”

Florida prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, in his closing arguments to the jury Thursday, asked jurors to look past the unsophistication of the state’s star witness, Rachel Jeantel, and to glean the meaning of her testimony about her phone call with Trayvon on the night he died, specifically that she heard him yell “Get off!” before the connection was broken.

At times hard to understand and fond of “colorful language” – such as calling Mr. De la Rionda “that bald-headed dude” – Ms. Jeantel nevertheless provided what prosecutors contend is a key piece of information that should lead to Zimmerman’s conviction on second-degree murder or manslaughter charges.

Mr. De la Rionda put his own twist on the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. when he told jurors: “A witness will not be judged on the color of her personality but by the content of her testimony.” 

Trial expert Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, says defense lawyers especially like to “flag-wave” in cases in which they don’t have much of a defense.

“Aphorisms and proverbs and quoting historical personages is an aspect of trial advocacy that goes back 2,000 years,” he says. “Usually defense lawyers talk about the Constitution and the presumption of innocence when they can’t talk about anything else.” O’Mara, however, built a legitimate self-defense case for Zimmerman, Mr. Dekle says.

The weighty constitutional references underscore the stakes in the high-profile trial concerning the death of Trayvon Martin, who had just turned 17 when he was fatally shot. After walking to a convenience store, he was headed back to the home where his dad was staying in a gated Sanford, Fla., neighborhood when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, spotted and followed him. After the two got into a fight, Zimmerman fired on Trayvon, his lawyers claim, in self-defense.

The incident stirred widespread rallies and protests when Sanford police declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying they could not counter his self-defense claim under a new Florida law that allows citizens wide latitude to defend themselves.

From the beginning, many Americans, especially blacks, viewed the incident through the lens of civil rights. Had the roles of the main players been reversed – if an armed black man had followed and then killed a white teenager, and then claimed self-defense – they doubt the police would have acted in the same way.

For Zimmerman supporters, the case touches on basic constitutional precepts around the Second Amendment’s guarantee, as outlined by the US Supreme Court, that citizens can carry weapons to use for personal self-defense.

It's not clear whether the lawyers' historical references will have much influence on the jury of mostly middle-aged women, or whether other impressions will matter more. Some analysts posit that an all-female jury could lean toward Zimmerman because they, too, worry about crime and possible home invasions from young criminals. Others say they may lean toward the prosecution because the evidence may fuel fears that their own children could become embroiled in a similar deadly encounter with an adult.

The jury received the case Friday afternoon and began deliberating whether Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, for which the state must prove Zimmerman shot Trayvon with “hate in his heart,” as prosecutor John Guy has said he did, or of manslaughter, where culpable negligence is the standard.

Trayvon's status as a minor and the fact that he was killed with a firearm could become aggravating factors in sentencing – if the jury finds Zimmerman guilty.

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