Screams in the background of a 911 recording made moments before 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death in a gated Florida community prove nothing because the voices can’t be identified, lawyers for accused murderer George Zimmerman are set to tell a judge.
In a hearing four days before Zimmerman’s trial for second-degree murder is scheduled to begin in Florida state court, defense lawyers today will seek to bar a prosecution witness who would tell jurors Martin can be heard on the call saying “I’m begging you.” The witness, an acoustics consultant, didn’t employ scientifically accepted methods, Zimmerman’s lawyers argue.
The recording, in which the screams end with the sound of a gunshot, could be pivotal to the prosecution’s case, in the absence of eyewitnesses, that Zimmerman, 29, was the aggressor. Zimmerman told police he acted in self-defense after Martin punched him in face, knocked him to the ground and threatened to kill him.
“It’s a critical piece of evidence for the prosecution,” Kendall Coffey, a former Miami U.S. Attorney, said in a phone interview. “If the prosecution can convince the jury that it is the voice of Trayvon Martin, the jury might conclude that Trayvon Martin is the true victim and George Zimmerman is the killer.”
The Feb. 26, 2012, shooting triggered protests in several U.S. cities and drew comment from President Barack Obama after officials initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying it appeared he had acted within the bounds of the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows individuals who feel threatened in a public place to “meet force with force.”
The furor centered on the racial aspects of the shooting -- Martin was black while Zimmerman’s father is white and his mother is Hispanic. Prosecutors say Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, profiled, pursued and then murdered Martin, who was carrying a can of iced tea, a bag of Skittles and $40 in cash at the time of his death.
The 911 call at issue in the hearing was made by a female resident of the Sanford, Florida, condominium complex to report what she said sounded like a fight outside her apartment.
The prosecution’s audio expert, Alan Reich, concluded that the man heard screaming in the background of the call was Martin and that Zimmerman’s voice is also heard saying “these shall be” in a low pitch “reminiscent of an evangelical preacher or carnival barker.” Reich’s four-page May 9 report said that Martin’s high-pitched, trembling voice could be heard yelling, “Stop,” just after “I’m begging you,” moments before Zimmerman fired his Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm pistol at him.
Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said in court papers that he doesn’t object to the six-person jury hearing the recording. His challenge is to how Reich determined the distant voice was Martin’s and not Zimmerman’s. FBI experts who also analyzed the recording couldn’t determine who was screaming, he said.
“Someone is screaming for help, that’s clear,” O’Mara said in a phone interview. “I thought there would be enough voice there to know who it was. I was surprised when the FBI said there wasn’t enough to be certain.”
The defense is attempting to use a legal procedure known as a Frye hearing to attack Reich’s methods as not meeting accepted standards for audio analysis. The maneuver, named for a 1923 federal appeals court ruling, allows a judge to disallow testimony that relies on scientific methods that aren’t widely accepted.
Zimmerman’s lawyers, in a May 23 filing challenging Reich and other state audio experts, told Circuit Judge Debra Nelson that Reich’s methods are “widely disputed in the scientific community.”
The prosecution claims in its own filing that an expert witness’s credentials should be established during the trial through questioning, not in a hearing before the trial.
Brian Tannebaum, a trial attorney who is past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said that if the 911 recording becomes evidence in the trial, it could hold perils for both defense and prosecution.
“You never know what jurors are thinking,” Tannebaum said in a phone interview. “If I were the judge, I would be very careful. Yes, the tape seems inaudible, but we can clearly hear somebody.
‘‘It isn’t whether the voice is George Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin, it’s who the jury thinks it is,” Tannebaum said.
Another question is whether Zimmerman will take the witness stand. Coffey said if testimony about the audio recording is kept out of the trial, he might not need to.
“If the defense can keep the voice recognition testimony out, they might be able to rely on statements that Zimmerman gave earlier,” Coffey said. “One thing is undeniable: George Zimmerman killed an unarmed man. From the jury perspective, they will want to hear why he killed that unarmed man.”
During Zimmerman’s Feb. 29 interview with police, detectives played the 911 call for him. At that time, just three days after the shooting, the call was yet to be examined by the FBI and other forensic analysts and police thought the screams for help were Zimmerman’s.
“You hear that voice in the background?” Chris Serino, the lead Sanford Police Department investigator, asked, according to a recording of the interview. “That’s you. Are you hearing yourself?”
“That doesn’t even sound like me,” Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman’s lawyers are also asking the judge to bar the prosecution from using certain words when describing Zimmerman during the trial. They include profiled, vigilante, self-appointed Neighborhood Watch captain and wannabe-cop.
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit (Seminole County).