Florida prosecutors lost their bid to have experts tell jurors that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed by a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, was captured on an audio recording begging for his life seconds before he was shot.
George Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder in the February 2012 shooting on a Sanford, Florida, street that he maintains was an act of self-defense.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson yesterday said that the recording of a bystander’s 911 call made during the incident still can be played for the jury of six women, who are scheduled to hear opening statements tomorrow. Nelson ruled that the methods used by the prosecutions’s acoustics experts to assert that the voice pleading for his life is Martin’s aren’t reliable enough to be used in the trial.
“This order does not prevent the parties from playing the tapes at trial or from calling witnesses familiar with the voice of the defendant or Martin to testify regarding the identity of the person(s) making the screams,” Nelson wrote.
The recorded screams and shouts, ending with the sound of a gunshot, may still be pivotal to prosecutors’ efforts to prove Zimmerman was the aggressor in the incident, which triggered charges of racism and protests by civil rights groups across the country.
Nelson, in a hearing that spanned four days, heard witnesses for the defense and prosecution offer conflicting opinions on whether the voices on the recording could be positively identified.
The underlying call was made to police by a female resident of the condominium complex where Martin was staying. The woman called to report what she said sounded like a fight outside her apartment.
The defense used a legal procedure known as a Frye hearing to successfully argue methods used by prosecutors’ proffered experts, Alan Reich and Thomas Owen, failed to meet the “widely accepted” standard required for presenting scientific evidence at trial and had to be barred.
Prosecutors countered that the techniques the men employed were neither new, nor novel and that their opinions and conclusions should be admissible at trial.
Reich said in a report that the person screaming in the background of that call was Martin. Zimmerman, he said, could be heard saying “these shall be” in a low-pitch voice “reminiscent of an evangelical preacher or carnival barker.”
Reich’s four-page May 9 report said Martin yelled on in a high-pitched, trembling voice, “I’m begging you,” and then “Stop,” moments before Zimmerman fired his Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm pistol at him.
Hirotaka Nakasone, an FBI voice analyst called by Zimmerman’s lawyers to testify at the hearing, said it was impossible to determine who was speaking on the recording.
Voice characteristics change because of location, situation, emotion and acoustics, Nakasone said. A minimum of 16 seconds of speech is needed for a proper analysis, while the recording offered just three seconds of the two men’s voices without interruption by the caller or operator.
“I don’t think anybody has a system right now that can compare a short segment of a screaming voice against reasonable, natural speech and can come up with the right answers,” Nakasone said.
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, said the jury will listen to the 911 call. Including testimony from Reich and Owen would have confused jurors and added a week to 10 days to the trial, he said yesterday in a phone interview.
“I’m glad she didn’t allow into trial this junk science with experts who could hear things that nobody else could hear,” O’Mara said. “The recordings will come in. They are important pieces of evidence.”
Jackelyn Barnard, a spokeswoman for prosecutors, didn’t immediately respond to a phone message yesterday seeking comment on the ruling.
The Feb. 26, 2012, shooting triggered protests in several U.S. cities and caused President Barack Obama to call for a full investigation.
Local officials initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying it appeared he 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.”
Prosecutors say Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother Hispanic, 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.
Zimmerman maintains he acted in self-defense after Martin punched him in face, knocked him to the ground and threatened to kill him.
There were no independent eyewitnesses to the incident.
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit, Seminole County (Sanford).