July 13 (Bloomberg) -- A six-woman jury in Sanford, Florida, is weighing whether the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer, was a crime or an act of self-defense.
In a case that has drawn national attention for its implications on race and guns, jurors heard closing arguments yesterday that offered contrasting stories of the events in the Florida townhouse complex on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, that left Martin dead from a single gunshot through the heart.
Prosecutors argue Zimmerman 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 the shooting. Zimmerman, 29, told police in videotaped statements that he acted in self-defense after Martin, 17, punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and threatened to kill him.
Jurors, who resumed deliberations today, will have to “consider the circumstances surrounding the killing” to decide whether it was second-degree murder or manslaughter, or whether it “resulted from justifiable use of deadly force,” Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson said, reading from jury instructions.
The killing of the unarmed black youth by a man whose father is white and mother is Hispanic sparked protests in several U.S. cities led by civil rights figures including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
The anger followed the initial decision of law enforcement officials not to arrest Zimmerman, citing the state’s laws on self-defense. Those statutes included the controversial Stand Your Ground law.
The shooting prompted President Barack Obama to comment that if he had a son, the child would have looked like Martin.
While Florida officials aren’t predicting unrest after the verdict, they have prepared plans to facilitate peaceful protests while discouraging lawbreaking.
Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith and Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, of surrounding Seminole County, appeared together in the courthouse after the case went to the jury and asked people to refrain from violence.
Eslinger urged businesses to operate as usual, he said. Lawbreaking in response to the verdict would not be tolerated, he said, urging citizens to “allow the judicial system to run its course.”
Nelson’s instructions to the jury included language on justifiable use of deadly force, including Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows individuals who feel threatened in a public place to “meet force with force.” The 2005 statute removed the obligation to retreat if possible to avoid a deadly clash.
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force,” Nelson told jurors.
Zimmerman could use deadly force if he reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm, she said.
Zimmerman, who had a license to carry a concealed weapon, is charged with second-degree murder though Nelson also gave jurors the option by of finding him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Second-degree murder carries a minimum of 25 years in prison if the crime involved a firearm and the possibility of a life sentence. A manslaughter conviction involving a firearm might result in 30 years in prison, according to Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara.
The events that led to the shooting began when Zimmerman spotted Martin walking in his gated townhouse complex, and called police to report a suspicious person. Martin, dressed that night in a hooded sweat shirt, was staying in the development at the home of his father’s girlfriend.
Zimmerman, who was driving to Target when he saw the youth, told 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 he told him he did not. 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. Police photos show Zimmerman bleeding from the nose and back of the head.
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 9 mm pistol, a Kel-Tec PF-9, 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.
In the absence of eyewitness accounts that Zimmerman was the aggressor, prosecutors in their closing arguments used Zimmerman’s own comments to police to portray him as a vigilante whose story can’t be trusted.
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda told jurors that Zimmerman was a police officer wannabe with martial arts training who profiled Martin as a criminal and then followed the youth after being told by a dispatcher to stop. De la Rionda played Zimmerman’s call to police to report Martin, highlighting Zimmerman’s remarks that criminals always get away.
“He wanted to make sure Trayvon Martin didn’t get out of the neighborhood,” de la Rionda said. “The rest of them would flee and this defendant was sick and tired of it. That night he decided he would be what he wanted to be: a police officer.”
In closing arguments yesterday, Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said Martin “did something” that led to the confrontation. Zimmerman isn’t guilty of anything “except protecting his own life,” O’Mara said.
He accused prosecutors of making biased assumptions about Zimmerman being the aggressor and told jurors they must not try to fill in the gaps in the government’s case.
Sitting silent for four minutes, O’Mara demonstrated the length of time between the end of Zimmerman’s call to police and a 911 call made by a neighbor, at the end of which a gunshot could be heard in the background. During that time, O’Mara said, Martin chose to fight Zimmerman rather than run back to where he was staying.
The prosecution “dared to tell you that Trayvon Martin had no decision, that my client planned this,” O’Mara said.
In rebuttal, Assistant State Attorney John Guy said Zimmerman ignored his Neighborhood Watch training by getting out of his car to follow Martin.
“The bottom line is if the defendant had done only what he was supposed to do -- to see and call -- none of us would be here -- none of us,” Guy said.
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit, Seminole County (Sanford).
To contact the reporters on this story: Tom Schoenberg in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Christopher Boyd in the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in Sanford, Florida.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at email@example.com.