George Zimmerman trial: Six women weigh a silent man’s future

The George Zimmerman jury has resumed deliberations in Sanford, Fla. Six women have an unenviable task: Measure justice in the case of a neighborhood watch captain who kills an unarmed teenager.

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.

Nationally engrossing for its commentary on race relations and gun rights, the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin inched closer to resolution on Saturday as six jurors – all women, five of them mothers – continued to deliberate the extent to which, if any, Mr. Zimmerman bore responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin, or whether he lawfully defended himself from an attack.

In the middle of the Zimmerman murder trial is a cone of silence, a two minute span that was never illuminated or explained during the trial by the lone survivor of a deadly encounter between two people – one an armed neighborhood watch captain, the other a black teenager minding his own business – on a rainy winter night in Sanford, Florida, in 2012.

Jurors have three paths they can take as a group: Murder 2, if they find Zimmerman had, as prosecutor John Guy said, “hate in his heart” when he followed, confronted, then shot Trayvon after a fight; manslaughter, if they find Zimmerman acted recklessly and without justification; and not guilty.

Legal experts who watched the entirety of the trial, which ended with closing arguments on Thursday and Friday, say that within those options lies the potential for a just verdict.

“Juries are famous for coming back with compromised verdicts, which means they have different ideas about what the evidence is,” says Bob Dekle, a trial expert and law professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “But even in those cases, what often happens is they work out a middle ground, which in this case could be manslaughter.”

According to Dekle, Zimmerman has a solid self-defense case, given injuries to his nose and face. But the jury, he says, may also, within the boundaries of manslaughter, find that he exhibited “culpable negligence” – in other words, that his negligent decisions set in motion a series of events that culminated with the death of a person legally defined as a child.

"What is that when a grown man, frustrated, angry, with hate in his heart, gets out of his car with a loaded gun and follows a child?” said prosecutor John Guy, who had the last word to the jury before they took the case Friday. “A stranger? In the dark? And shoots him through his heart? What is that?"

The defense says it was Martin who stalked Zimmerman after Zimmerman got out of his car to look for an address, sucker punched him, and then beat his head on a concrete sidewalk. Though he had gone to a boxing gym for 18 months, Zimmerman, who had 40 pounds on the 158 pound Trayvon, didn’t have the physical ability or technical prowess to fight back, witnesses said.

“How many ‘coulda beens’ have you heard from the state in this case,” defense attorney Mark O’Mara queried the jury. “Do not give anybody the benefit of the doubt except for George Zimmerman.”

Trayvon Martin, of course, could not testify, as the prosecutors maintained more than once. Zimmerman chose not to testify, allowing previously recorded interviews with police and media to speak for him in the courtroom. Judge Debra Nelson told jurors that they could not allow Zimmerman’s decision to remain silent sway their verdict.

That left jurors to wade through an avalanche of emotional and often contradictory testimony, ranging from the identity of a desperate scream for help caught on a 911 recording to the meaning of Zimmerman’s observations on a 911 nonemergency call about “[expletive] punks” who “always get away.”

Other open questions for the jury include trying to determine who actually started the fight and whether Zimmerman, as the prosecution contends, consistently lied to police about the sequence of events.

The jurors have been engaged. When Guy showed, not for the first time, an autopsy picture of Trayvon’s face, one of the youngest jurors cried. When prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda straddled a man-sized felt dummy to illustrate what he saw as inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s explanation of what happened, all the jurors stood up to see better, with one juror stepping slightly out of the jury box to get a closer look.

The women of the jury include a Hispanic nursing home nurse, a 30-something parrot owner, a middle-aged woman who told the judge she “wants a fair trial,” and another middle-aged white woman who told the judge she’ll urge jurors to only consider introduced evidence, but also noted that, “You have a responsibility if you bear arms.”

The defense wants the jury to focus only on Zimmerman’s story of how he was attacked and beaten. The prosecution wants the jury to look at Trayvon’s death in its totality, and to consider what a not guilty verdict would mean.

Guy told the jury that if Zimmerman is acquitted it will signal to society that it’s okay for grown men to follow and chase children, and kill them if they put up a fight.

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