Trayvon Martin case: Doctor waves off Zimmerman injuries as 'so minor'

A doctor, testifying Tuesday for the prosecution, played down the injuries that defendant George Zimmerman sustained during a fight with slain teen Trayvon Martin. Prosecutors are working to undermine Zimmerman's self-defense claim.

Joe Burbank/Pool/Reuters
Jacksonville medical examiner Valerie Rao is questioned by defense attorney Mark O'Mara in George Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, July 2, 2013. Zimmerman is accused in the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Do the injuries George Zimmerman sustained on the night he fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin support his statement that he acted in self-defense?

On Tuesday, a medical examiner called by prosecutors testified that Mr. Zimmerman's injuries not only were not life-threatening, but also were "very insignificant." Her assessment addresses a key aspect of the trial, in which Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain of his gated community in Sanford, Fla., faces second-degree murder charges in the shooting death of the unarmed teen on Feb. 26, 2012.

Dr. Valerie Rao, the medical examiner for Duval, Clay, and Nassau Counties in northern Florida, said Zimmerman’s injuries could have been the result of a single blow during a confrontation between the two. [Editor's note: The original version of this paragraph misspelled Dr. Rao's first name.]

She also took issue with Zimmerman's own characterization of events, which the defendant had relayed to Fox News' Sean Hannity in an interview that aired July 18. In it, he said that Trayvon Martin "started slamming my head into the concrete." Prosecutors played the interview for jurors on Tuesday.

But the injuries Zimmerman sustained didn't mesh with that recounting, Dr. Rao testified. “If you look at the injuries, they’re so minor,” she said during questioning by prosecutors. “The word 'slam' conveys great force, and there was no great force used here.”

Rao did not perform the autopsy for Trayvon and did not examine George Zimmerman in person. Rather, the prosecution hired her as an expert witness, and she formed her judgments from photographs of Zimmerman taken that night.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara, in a bid to cast doubt on Rao’s neutrality, suggested that she may be indebted to State Attorney Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in the Zimmerman case. Ms. Corey appointed Rao to the interim position she held before the governor named her to her current position.

Rao replied that Corey “sent my name up to governor,” but testified under further questioning by prosecutors that she did not slant her testimony because Corey wrote a letter of support for her.

The medical judgment is important to prosecutors, who are trying to prove that "George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to [but] he shot him for the worst of all reasons – because he wanted to,” as prosecutor John Guy said in the state's opening statement

The extent of Zimmerman’s injuries also raised questions with Sanford police investigator Chris Serino, who completed five hours of testimony Tuesday morning.

Detective Serino told the court he questioned whether Zimmerman’s injuries matched Zimmerman's statements that Trayvon was slamming his head on the concrete, but that overall he found Zimmerman’s account “consistent.”

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, who called Serino to the stand, asked the judge Monday to strike from the record a statement Serino made in which he said he found credible Zimmerman's account of how he came to be in a fight with Trayvon Martin.

Mr. De la Rionda argued that the statement was improper because one witness isn't allowed to give an opinion on the credibility of another witness. Defense attorney Mark O'Mara argued it was proper because it was Serino's job to decide whether Zimmerman was telling the truth.

Judge Debra Nelson told jurors to disregard the statement. "This is an improper comment," the judge said.

The prosecutor then questioned Serino about his opinion that Zimmerman did not show ill will or spite toward Trayvon. A second-degree murder conviction requires prosecutors to prove that the defendant acted out of ill will, spite, or a depraved mind. 

The prosecutor played back Zimmerman's nonemergency call to police to report the teen walking through his community. Zimmerman uses an expletive, refers to "punks" and then says, "These a-------. They always get away."

The detective conceded that Zimmerman's choice of words could be interpreted as being spiteful.

Zimmerman has said he fatally shot Trayvon in February 2012 in self-defense in the midst of a fight in which the teenager was banging his head into a concrete sidewalk. The volunteer watchman has pleaded not guilty to the second-degree murder charges. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison.

The state argued in its opening statement that Zimmerman had profiled Trayvon, who is African-American, and followed the teenager in a truck, phoning a police dispatch number before he and the teen got into a fight behind townhomes where he was patrolling.

Zimmerman has denied that the confrontation had anything to do with race, as Trayvon's family and their supporters have claimed. 

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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