In Zimmerman Case, Self-Defense Was Hard to Topple
By LIZETTE ALVAREZ
July 14, 2013
SANFORD, Fla. — From the moment George Zimmerman held up his arms and told the police that he had shot Trayvon Martin, one fact was undisputed: an unarmed black teenager lay dead.
But as one top Florida defense lawyer, Michael Band, said on Sunday, “Trials, for better or worse, are not morality plays.”
From the start, prosecutors faced a difficult case — weak on evidence and long on outrage. Mr. Zimmerman had the power of self-defense laws on his side, and was helped by a spotty police investigation and prosecutorial missteps. The initial investigation foundered when the local prosecutor balked at bringing charges, convinced that overcoming the self-defense claims would prove impossible.
But six weeks after the killing, his replacement, Angela B. Corey, from the Jacksonville area, charged Mr. Zimmerman with second-degree murder, a tall order.
Mr. Zimmerman’s lawyers Don West, left, and Mark O’Mara talked to reporters after the verdict was announced.
POOL PHOTO BY GARY W. GREEN
At the trial, the fight between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman that preceded the shooting produced a muddle of testimony — and grist for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had thrown the first punch and at what point Mr. Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting and no definitive determination of which man could be heard yelling for help in the background of a 911 call.
The only version of events came from Mr. Zimmerman, who did not take the stand, denying prosecutors a chance to cross-examine him. His statements to the police spoke for him at the trial. Defense lawyers also had a powerful piece of evidence in photographs of Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries: a bloody nose and cuts and lumps on the back of his head.
Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, claimed that he shot Mr. Martin only after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him, straddled him and slammed his head into the concrete — “a weapon,” as his lawyer, Mark O’Mara, called it. The murder charge required a showing that Mr. Zimmerman was full of ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent when he shot Mr. Martin. But prosecutors had little evidence to back up that claim, legal experts said. They could point only to Mr. Zimmerman’s words during his call to the police dispatcher the night he spotted Mr. Martin walking in the rain with his sweatshirt’s hood up and grew suspicious.
“Punks,” he said, adding a profanity. “They always get away,” he said, using another profanity.
Braylynn Walker, center, attended a midnight vigil in reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Philadelphia early Monday.
MARK MAKELA FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
But Mr. Zimmerman appeared calm during the call and did not describe Mr. Martin’s race until he was asked. And defense lawyers brought in witnesses to say that Mr. Zimmerman, on the whole, was a courteous, kind and caring neighbor.
“That was a fatal flaw right from the start in the case,” said Jeff Weiner, a well-known Miami criminal defense lawyer.
Toward the end of the trial, prosecutors asked the judge to include the lesser charge of manslaughter, but the jury rejected that as well.
Legal experts pointed to what they said were errors by the prosecution. Several prosecution witnesses struggled on the stand and appeared not to have been prepared, including Rachel Jeantel, the young friend of Mr. Martin’s who said he had told her on the phone that he was being followed and was scared.
Video | Protests Follow Zimmerman Acquittal The fallout over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was felt across the country on Sunday.
Prosecutors interviewed Ms. Jeantel for the first time in the house of Sybrina Fulton, Mr. Martin’s mother, while Ms. Fulton sat next to her. Shaken up by Ms. Fulton’s presence, Ms. Jeantel softened her account of the phone call to protect Ms. Fulton, she testified.
Prosecutors also were hurt by the testimony of Officer Chris Serino of the Sanford Police Department, the chief investigator on the case. He told the jury he believed Mr. Zimmerman’s account was truthful.
Yet another trouble spot was the testimony of Dr. Shiping Bao, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Mr. Martin. On the stand, legal experts said, he came across as befuddled, shuffling through his notes because he could remember so little.
“It was horrific,” said Richard Sharpstein, a prominent Miami criminal defense lawyer. “It was the deadly blow to this case because the case depended on forensic evidence to contradict or disprove George Zimmerman’s story.”
Slide Show | Zimmerman Trial Verdict Reopens a Debate The acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death has prompted demonstrations and reopened the debate on race, crime and the American justice system.
The performance was the opposite of that by Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, who took the stand for the defense. Polished and concise, Dr. Di Maio said the evidence and injuries to Mr. Zimmerman were consistent with the defense’s account: that Mr. Martin was leaning over the defendant when he was shot.
“When Bao completely imploded, that was check,” Mr. Sharpstein said. “When Di Maio testified, it was checkmate.”
The evidence of Mr. Zimmerman’s injuries may have helped his case, but it was not legally necessary. He needed to show only that he feared great bodily harm or death when he pulled out his gun, which he was carrying legally, and shot Mr. Martin.
“Classic self-defense,” Mr. O’Mara said.
Soon after Mr. Zimmerman was arrested, there appeared to be a chance that the defense would invoke a provision of Florida self-defense law known as Stand Your Ground. Ultimately it was not part of Mr. O’Mara’s courtroom strategy, though it did play a pivotal role immediately after the shooting.
The provision, enacted by the Florida Legislature in 2005 and since adopted by more than 20 other states, allows people who fear great harm or death not to retreat, even if they can safely do so. If an attacker is retreating, people are still permitted to use deadly force.
The provision also allows a defendant claiming self-defense to seek civil and criminal immunity at a pretrial hearing.
Mr. O’Mara said he did not rely on Stand Your Ground as a defense because Mr. Zimmerman had no option to retreat. A pretrial immunity hearing, which prosecutors said they had been expecting, would only have divulged his case. So Mr. O’Mara gambled on a jury trial.
“That was a brilliant strategic move,” Mr. Sharpstein said. “It precluded the state from previewing the defense.”
But Stand Your Ground did play a role when the police were contemplating whether to charge Mr. Zimmerman, said Tamara Lave, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami.
Under the law, if the police believe there is probable cause that someone acted in self-defense, as Mr. Zimmerman said he had, they are not allowed to make an arrest, she said. The self-defense claim also may have affected how thoroughly the police interviewed witnesses, preserved the crime scene and screened Mr. Zimmerman.
Eventually, the police arrested Mr. Zimmerman, but only after Gov. Rick Scott of Florida had appointed Ms. Corey as prosecutor.
At a news conference after the verdict, Ms. Corey said prosecutors had been hindered by the fact they inherited the case well into the investigation. Still, she forged ahead.
“What we promised to do was get this case in front of a jury,” she said, “and give Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman their day in court.”
The New York Times