Zimmerman murder trial begins: bad language, worse joke

Opening statements in the trial of George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, featured major stylistic contrasts between the prosecution and defense.

Joe Burbank/Reuters
Assistant State Attorney John Guy gestures during his opening arguments in front of the jury in the George Zimmerman trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, June 24. Guy's first words to jurors quoted what Zimmerman told a police dispatcher in a call shortly before the fatal confrontation with teenager Trayvon Martin.
Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/AP
George Zimmerman waits for his defense counsel to arrive in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Fla., Monday, June 24. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder for the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Opening statements in the murder trial of George Zimmerman featured sharply different versions of the events that led to the death of teenager Trayvon Martin and offered major stylistic contrasts, with the prosecutor beginning with curses and the defense attorney telling a joke.

Mr. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of the 17-year-old while serving as a neighborhood watch volunteer in February 2012. Zimmerman called 911 to report a “suspicious person” in the neighborhood and has pleaded not guilty, saying he acted in self-defense.

Prosecutor John Guy's first words to jurors quoted what Zimmerman told a police dispatcher in a call shortly before the fatal confrontation with Mr. Martin. "F------ punks. These a-------. They always get away,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying. A Fox News reporter in the room said “jaws in the jury box dropped” in response to the unusual courtroom language.

In his 34-minute opening statement, prosecutor Guy disputed Zimmerman’s assertion that he acted in self-defense after being attacked by Martin. Zimmerman “didn’t have bruised knuckles, he didn’t have swollen hands. The only injury to his hand that was capable of being photographed was a small abrasion on his left ring finger,” Mr. Guy said, according to a CNN live blog.

The prosecutor argued that Zimmerman was profiling Martin, who is black, as he followed him through the gated community where Zimmerman lived and where Martin was visiting the home of his father’s girlfriend. He said Zimmerman viewed the teen, who was wearing a dark hooded shirt on a rainy night, “as someone about to a commit a crime in his neighborhood."

Zimmerman did not have to shoot Martin, Guy said. “He shot him for the worst of all reasons: because he wanted to," Guy said, according to the AP.

After a brief recess, defense attorney Don West began a statement that lasted 1 hour and 45 minutes, until the judge ordered a lunchtime recess. “This is a sad case, of course," Mr. West said. "A young man lost his life, another is fighting for his.”

However West then noted that “sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. So let me, at considerable risk…. I’d like to tell you a little joke,” which the defense attorney sought to use to illustrate the difficulty of picking a jury in a case that has attracted so much publicity.

"'Knock. Knock,'" West said.

"'Who is there?'"

"'George Zimmerman.'"

"'George Zimmerman who?'"

"'Ah, good. You're on the jury.'"

According to courtroom observers, the joke fell flat with the jury.

It was met “with compete, life-sucking silence in the courtroom,” Mediaite said.

West told jurors that in a confrontation Martin “sucker punched” Zimmerman in the face and “pounded” his head into the concrete sidewalk. Only then, the defense attorney said, did Zimmerman “wind up shooting and tragically killing Trayvon Martin.” The defense played for jurors the call to a police dispatcher in which Zimmerman used the obscenities.

The defense also argued that Martin had opportunities to go home after Zimmerman followed him and then lost track of him, West said. But, said West, “Trayvon Martin decided to confront George Zimmerman. That instead of going home.”

"The evidence will show that this is a sad case," West said. "There are no monsters here."

When the courtroom proceedings resumed after lunch, West resumed his opening statement by apologizing to jurors for the knock-knock joke. "No more bad jokes, I promise that. I was convinced it was the delivery," CNN quoted him as saying.

When the opening statements end and the jury hears testimony in the case, two police dispatch phone calls are expected to be important. In the first call, Zimmerman talks to a non-emergency police dispatcher as he follows Martin and is told he does not need to follow him. The second call is to 911 and includes screams from the confrontation. The defense says they are screams from Zimmerman. The prosecution contends Martin is screaming.

Judge Debra Nelson ruled over the weekend that experts for the prosecution will not be allowed to testify that the screams came from Martin, saying the methods they used were unreliable. But the jury will be allowed to hear the call and judge its meaning.

Material from the Associated Press was used in preparing this report.

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