Zimmerman trial: For jury, anguished task to resolve death of Trayvon Martin

The Zimmerman trial testimony is complicated and hard evidence scant, but the jury’s choices are basic: Is Zimmerman responsible for the death of a teenager? Or was it precipitated by Trayvon’s own actions?

Joe Burbank, Orlando Sentinel/AP
George Zimmerman arrives in the courtroom for his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Fla., Friday, July 12, 2013. Zimmerman is charged in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Did an angry, hate-filled George Zimmerman “track” Trayvon Martin and, at earliest opportunity, kill him, as prosecutors claim? Or was he a community-conscious and mild-mannered volunteer watchman who can claim “absolute innocence” in the unarmed black teenager’s death, as the defense suggests?

The clash of two people – an armed adult, an unarmed teenager about 40 pounds lighter – has occupied the country for going on 16 months, and the trial is now winding down into its final days. The trial has gone on for nearly a month, during which the six-woman jury has been sequestered.

The trial is being watched nationally, and with particular interest in Florida, as it’s seen widely as a cultural and political commentary on the state of race relations and the impact of liberalized gun laws that make it harder to prosecute people who claim self-defense in contested shootings.

While the testimony is complicated and hard evidence scant, the jury’s prospects are also basic: Does Mr. Zimmerman, 29, bear responsibility for the death of a teenager? Or was the shooting precipitated by Trayvon’s own actions?

The jury is basically being asked to consider a span of a few minutes, from when Zimmerman, who aspired to become a police officer, first spots a “suspicious” person, makes a comment to a police dispatcher that these “[expletives] always get away,” and then follows him on foot.

Those actions suggest he’s a would-be police officer with a grudge, the prosecution told the jury.

The defense says Zimmerman acted reasonably and in accordance to instructions from the dispatcher in traveling through a dark passageway where Trayvon had run to check an address. There’s also testimony in the case where Zimmerman admits he was scared of Trayvon Martin, and that earlier he had rolled his window up after he claimed Martin “circled” his SUV. Zimmerman says Trayvon hid and waited for an opportunity to confront, then strike him with a left-handed punch, knocking him to the ground.

Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead defense attorney, asked the courtroom to be silent for the four minutes to punctuate the span of time between the point at which Trayvon ran away from Zimmerman and the point of the attack, to suggest that he could have run to where he was staying with his father, but did not. He had told a friend that a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him.

“The reality of what happened is very straightforward, and it proves absolute innocence,” Mr. O’Mara said. He said Trayvon was “the person who decided that this is going to continue, that this was going to become a violent event, was the guy who didn’t go home when he had chance to, the guy who decided to lie in wait, plan his move.”

An animated video shown by the defense showed Martin, in a hoodie, walking up to Zimmerman, and punching him. Then somehow the two people end up 30 yards away on a concrete sidewalk cut-through in the cookie-cutter neighborhood, where Trayvon can be seen either straddling or laying down on top of Zimmerman. The protracted struggle involved what one witness referred to as a “ground and pound” by Trayvon. Zimmerman had a dislocated nose and small bloody scraped on the back of his head after the struggle.

For the prosecution, the task of getting to ill will, which is necessary for a conviction of second-degree murder, the original and most severe charge faced by Zimmerman, is partly through pointing out, as another prosecutor said earlier in the trial, that one man is dead and “the other is a liar.”

The jury has also been instructed to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter, for which the jury will need to decide that Zimmerman was neglectful in causing Trayvon’s death.

What the jury will wrestle will be this, said prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda in his closing argument Thursday: “A man made assumptions, and, unfortunately, because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin no longer walks on this earth.”

Trayvon, who had been in trouble at school but had never been arrested, had just bought some candy and a soda at a store and was returning to where his dad was staying in the gated neighborhood when Zimmerman spotted him. Besides the candy and soda, he had $40.15 in his pocket.

Prosecutors say their evidence shows that Zimmerman “tracked” Martin against a dispatcher’s advice, confronted him – “What are you doing around here?” one witness who was on the phone with Trayvon testified – and then pulled his gun out and shot Trayvon after their struggle.

Hard evidence has been hard to come by. Zimmerman, who did not testify at trial, said in a police interview that Trayvon was trying to smother his bloodied mouth and nose, but there was no blood found on Trayvon’s hands. Zimmerman had said Trayvon reached and grabbed his gun, but forensic experts found only Zimmerman’s DNA on the gun. A shriek for help has never been positively identified by science, leaving two mothers – Zimmerman’s and Trayvon’s – to both identify the yells as coming from their own son.

According to the jury instructions, jurors can consider the entirety of the event, and weigh Zimmerman’s decisions against decisions made by Trayvon in the run-up to their tragic encounter.

The prosecutor told the jury to “use your God-given common sense” to make a decision. O’Mara warned the jury to “be careful with your common sense.”

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