The murder case against George Zimmerman may turn on whether jurors believe his story that he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense after calling police to report a suspicious person in his gated Florida community.
Jury selection began today in Zimmerman’s trial for second-degree murder in Florida state court in Sanford. Six people will be picked to consider the government’s evidence that Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, profiled, pursued and then murdered Martin, who was unarmed. He faces possible life imprisonment if convicted.
Zimmerman, 29, told police he acted in self-defense after Martin punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and threatened to kill him. In the absence of eyewitness accounts that Zimmerman was the aggressor, prosecutors will use Zimmerman’s own comments to police to portray him as a vigilante whose story about what happened the night of the shooting can’t be trusted, said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor.
“If the jury walks away thinking the guy wanted to be a cop and had no business being out there creating the situation he now wants to rely upon for his defense, that’s problematic,” McRae, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles, said in an interview.
The Feb. 26, 2012, shooting spurred President Barack Obama to comment that if he had a son, the child would have looked like Martin. The killing triggered protests in several U.S. cities after officials initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying it appeared he had acted within the bounds of the state’s Stand Your Ground law. The statute 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.
Selecting a jury may take more than a week for a trial that both sides have said will probably last at least four weeks.
One hundred potential jurors filled out questionnaires today and then were questioned individually in the courtroom. They were asked by lawyers for the prosecution and defense what they knew about the case, what television shows they watched and how hard it would be to serve on a jury that may be sequestered for two months. The first two potential jurors questioned were both women who said they worked night jobs.
The second person, a nursing home employee with seven children, said she moved to the area from Chicago four months earlier. Under questioning from Zimmerman’s lawyer, Don West, the woman said she believed Martin was around 12 or 13 based on pictures she’s seen.
“I remember people selling T-shirts and some little boy passed away,” the potential juror said.
Prosecutors submitted a list of 85 possible witnesses, including Zimmerman’s father and Martin’s parents. One witness is a woman who said she was on the phone with Martin at the time of his confrontation with Zimmerman. The woman, who prosecutors haven’t named, said Martin told her he was being followed by a stranger and was scared.
Brian Tannebaum, a trial attorney who is past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the prosecution will want to keep the trial as simple as possible in order to avoid character comparisons between Zimmerman and Martin.
“The more you bring out about these two people, the more it is about these two people and less about the incident,” Tannebaum said in an interview. “This isn’t about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it is a trial about someone with a gun and someone without a gun.”
Zimmerman said he was driving to a store around 7 p.m. when he saw Martin walking in the rain through the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community in the central-Florida town north of Orlando, according to recording of a police interview. Zimmerman called the police to report a suspicious person, describing Martin as black, acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.
“Are you following him?” a dispatcher asked Zimmerman, according to the recording.
“Yeah,” Zimmerman responds.
“Ok, we don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher said.
“Ok,” Zimmerman responded.
During the call, Zimmerman made references to people he said had committed crimes in his neighborhood and gotten away.
Zimmerman later told the police he got out of his vehicle to look for a street name to give the dispatcher. As he walked back to his SUV, he said, Martin approached from behind and asked whether he had a problem. Zimmerman said no. Martin said, “Well, you do now” and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to a recording of Zimmerman’s Feb. 26, 2012, interview with police.
Zimmerman told officers he fell and that Martin got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk. A police report said Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head. Zimmerman said he began yelling for help “but no one would help me,” according to the incident report.
Zimmerman told police that Martin covered his nose and mouth with his hands. Martin then told him “you’re going to die tonight” and reached for the Kel-Tec PF-9 9 mm pistol that Zimmerman had holstered around his waist, according to Zimmerman. Zimmerman said he got to the gun first and fired the hollow-point bullet into Martin’s chest.
At the time of the shooting, Martin was carrying a can of iced tea, a bag of Skittles and $40 in cash. Police learned that Martin, who lived in Miami Gardens, Florida, was staying at the home of his father’s girlfriend in the neighborhood.
Prosecutors may highlight discrepancies in Zimmerman’s story about the shooting over the course of three days of police interviews. Those involve Zimmerman backing away from his claim that Martin circled his vehicle or his explanation that a mental condition prevented him from remembering the name of a key street in his subdivision.
A second 911 call in which screams are heard in the background just before a gunshot might also be used to cast doubt on Zimmerman’s story. Police initially believed the screams were Zimmerman’s and questioned him as to how that could be, given that Zimmerman said Martin was covering his nose and mouth before the shot was fired.
Prosecutors now contend the screams were Martin’s.
“What set this kid off?” Chris Serino, the lead Sanford Police Department investigator, asked Zimmerman during a Feb. 29, 2012, interview. “He’s not on PCP. He’s not on anything. He’s on Skittles.”
The judge hasn’t decided yet whether prosecutors will be allowed to have their audio experts tell the jury about their analysis of the 911 call, which was made by a female resident of the condominium complex who reported 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 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 shot him.
The defense is attempting to use a legal procedure to challenge Reich and other state audio experts by arguing that their methods are “widely disputed in the scientific community.” During three days of hearings, Zimmerman’s lawyers called other audio experts to the stand, including one who examined the call for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, to attack Reich’s report.
“It’s a critical piece of evidence for the prosecution,” Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, 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 prosecution may also draw attention to the fact that Zimmerman’s bond was initially revoked for failing to tell the court about money donated through a legal defense fund. Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie, was also charged with perjury for testimony she gave about the family’s finances at the bond hearing.
“How Zimmerman has postured himself in this case up to this point before trial may come back to haunt him in this case,” McRae said in an interview.
Zimmerman opted not to request a hearing on whether Florida’s 2005 Stand Your Ground law applies in this case, though his lawyers can still argue during the trial that it justified his decision to shoot Martin.
Stand Your Ground allows people to defend themselves with firearms when they feel threatened, even in public places. Before the law was adopted, people were expected to retreat from the threatening situation if it were possible.
Tannebaum said Zimmerman’s following Martin wouldn’t negate a Stand Your Ground defense.
“In order to use Stand Your Ground, you can’t be engaged in unlawful activity,” he said. “There is no unlawful activity by not accepting the advice of a police officer.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers, who submitted a witness list with more than 200 names, will seek information that backs their client’s story that Martin was the attacker.
The night of the shooting, Zimmerman told police that while he was screaming for help, a resident came out of his home and said he was calling 911. That appears to be supported by an interview the following day a local TV station did with a resident. He wouldn’t appear on camera and gave his name only as John.
“The guy on bottom who I believe had a red sweater on was yelling to me ’Help! Help!’” the resident said in the Fox 35 interview. “I told him to stop and I was calling 911.”
Martin was wearing a gray-hooded sweatshirt when he was shot.
Florida Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has ruled that during opening statements the jury won’t hear any references to possible marijuana use by Martin, though she left open the possibility it could be introduced later in the trial. Traces of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, were found in Martin’s blood after his death.
“If the prosecution spends undue time trying to portray Trayvon Martin as flawless, that would create an opening for the defense,” Coffey, the former Miami U.S. attorney, said.
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit, Seminole County (Sanford).