Zimmerman case will likely go to jury

While many criminal cases end in plea agreements before trial, experts say the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a neighhorhood watch volunteer will probably end in a jury trial.

Sanford Police Department/AP
George Zimmerman is shown Wednesday April 11 in a police booking photo. Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Trayvon Martin, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder.

Successfully prosecuting neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin won't be easy. Neither will defending him be.

A bond hearing for Zimmerman is set for Friday. He is scheduled to be arraigned May 29. Although most criminal cases end up in some kind of plea agreement, experts predict that Zimmerman's case will culminate in a jury trial.

Key to such a case will be a meticulous re-creation of the events leading up to Martin's death on Feb. 26 in a Sanford, Fla., gated community. Both sides will use those details to suit their purposes.

QUIZ: How much do you know about the Second Amendment?

"This case is really going to turn on those last few minutes before the shooting, and what happened," said Heidi Rummel, a professor of criminal law at USC.

To secure a conviction, the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

"And there's a pretty strong inference that Mr. Zimmerman intended to kill Mr. Martin," Rummel said. "But the question is whether he was acting in self-defense, and honestly and reasonably believed that he was in imminent danger of death or seriously bodily harm."

She added: "The problem in this case is that there are a lot of facts that are in dispute about the moments before the shooting. That is going to be the challenge for the prosecutor."

University of Florida criminal law professor Kenneth B. Nunn said he believed a lot of deliberation went into the decision to file a second-degree murder charge.

First-degree murder would have been a reach; no one suggests that Martin's killing was premeditated. But prosecutors also chose not to undercharge Zimmerman by, say, accusing him of manslaughter, Nunn said. A manslaughter charge simply requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant's negligence caused the death, he said.

Nunn predicted that would prove to be a smart legal strategy, especially given the possibility that the case could be presented to jurors who are supporters of Florida's "stand your ground" law or who are sympathetic toZimmerman's plight.

"In a case like this, where you may have jurors who may view Mr. Zimmerman as a sympathetic character, you could run the risk of having a compromised verdict in the case," in which the jurors try to come up with a more palatable alternative to the charge in front of them, he said. "If the charge is manslaughter, a jury can only compromise downward from there."

But if jurors in a second-degree murder case want to show some leniency, they could convict him of manslaughter, he said.

Nunn said the case would be intriguing to watch, in part because many key facts are clear: Zimmerman has acknowledged shooting the unarmed Martin.

At the same time, the devil is in the details _ and trying to determine Zimmerman's state of mind at the moment he pulled the trigger. "That's not easy to do," Nunn said, and both sides will try to use that same set of evidence to prove their case.

QUIZ: How much do you know about the Second Amendment?

Florida law requires the prosecution in a second-degree murder case prove that the defendant was guilty of an "act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life." That's archaic language, Nunn said, for "a form of excessive recklessness. ... You have to prove that the defendant was not just guilty of a mere reckless killing, but that it was super reckless."

Nationally, the vast majority of criminal cases end up in some sort of plea agreement. But legal experts predicted that this case would go to trial, most likely in 2013, and that it would last several weeks.

A trial means impaneling a jury of people who haven't already made up their minds about the heavily covered case. "It's going to be hard to find someone who hasn't heard about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman," Nunn said.

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