Sunday, April 22, 2018

Case for 'ill will' didn't trump reasonable doubt

MIAMI — After five weeks of trial and 59 witnesses, few legal observers believed prosecutors came close to proving that Sanford neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman committed second-degree murder when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26, 2012.

So for many legal analysts, it was no surprise that jurors rejected even a lesser "compromise" verdict of manslaughter, acquitting Zimmerman outright of all criminal charges and deciding he acted in a reasonable way to protect his own life.

The acquittal was a stinging blow for prosecutors and their decision to file the second-degree murder charge against Zimmerman, who was not initially arrested by Sanford police after claiming self-defense. It was a resounding embrace of the defense's strategy during closing arguments not just to establish that prosecutors hadn't proven Zimmerman guilty, but also to show he was "absolutely" innocent.

"The jury clearly believed that you have a right to defend yourself," said Jude M. Faccidomo, the former president of Miami's Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "Especially when cases are so gray, like this one was, self-defense really resonates because people can associate with being afraid."

While some also have questioned the state attorney's office acceptance of a mostly white jury, a more diverse panel would have returned the same verdict, lawyers who have watched the case believe.

"After seeing the quality of the evidence presented by the state, the diversity of the jury really didn't matter in the end," said Larry Handfield, an African-American Miami criminal defense lawyer. "But it would have helped the community in giving more credibility to the decision to acquit Zimmerman."

A look at the evidence shows why the jury rejected the state's case. For prosecutors intent on proving the more serious charge, proving the "ill will," "hatred" or "spite" needed to convict on second-degree murder hinged on painting Zimmerman as a frustrated, would-be cop fed up with intruders in his gated Sanford community.

To do so, they focused on Zimmerman's past — over defense objections — introducing evidence of his interest in law enforcement, including a ride-along with Sanford police, a class on criminal justice, an unsuccessful application to a Virginia police department.

Prosecutors also played five calls to police that Zimmerman made in the several months before the shooting, in an attempt to show a pattern of "profiling." They also introduced evidence about his membership at a mixed martial arts gym.

Their most important evidence to prove "ill will" was Zimmerman's call to a Sanford police non-emergency dispatcher when he first spotted Martin, saying "these assholes always get away" and, according to prosecutors, muttering "f------ punks" under his breath.

"If there was ever a window into that man's soul, it was that defendant's words on that phone call," prosecutor John Guy told the jury Friday in a poignant closing argument that appeared to have at least one juror emotionally strained.

Guy's closing argument was typical of a state's case that drew heavily on emotion and emphasized the youth of the victim, as well as one of the most important witnesses: Martin's friend, Rachel Jeantel.

She was speaking to him by phone moments before he died and recounted that Martin told her someone was following him.

Jeantel told jurors that Martin told her of a "creepy-ass cracker" watching him as he walked home from the convenience store, and of hearing the man angrily demand to know what Martin was doing in the neighborhood.

Her testimony was not polished, and she sparred for hours with defense attorneys. But her story remained unchanged.

"I thought she was a good witness. I thought the jury would be sympathetic to her because she was an (18)-year-old kid, she was inexperienced at testifying and that made her come across as credible," said Miami defense lawyer Andrew Rier.

Zimmerman's prosecution was made tougher under Florida's 2005 Stand Your Ground law, which eliminated a citizen's "duty to retreat" before using lethal force in the face of a deadly threat, an instruction given to jurors on Friday. And the state's case also was filled with blunders, legal experts said.

Many of the witnesses called by the state seemed to benefit the defense, including one neighbor, John Good, who claimed he saw Martin pin Zimmerman to the ground.

Prosecutors also called the lead Sanford police investigators, using them to introduce each of Zimmerman's videotaped statements and a walk-through of the crime scene Zimmerman did with police a day after Martin's death.

Legal observers noted that playing the videos in court eliminated the need for Zimmerman himself to take the stand — a tactic that may have helped the defense by allowing Zimmerman's voice to be heard in court without risk of cross-examination.

In all, lawyers say, the defense presented a mostly confident, methodical case that sought to pick apart the lack of evidence.

Lawyers Mark O'Mara and Don West even shunned the chance to tarnish Martin though the judge had allowed the defense to introduce the slain teen's toxicology report showing he had smoked marijuana.

Their approach was evident at closing. While prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda was mocking and at times shrill, O'Mara was calm and conversational.

Zimmerman's neighborhood watch history? "Tell me one witness who said George Zimmerman patrolled that neighborhood . . . not one," he told jurors.

The belief Zimmerman was the aggressor? "One piece of evidence that my client attacked Trayvon Martin?" O'Mara asked jurors. "Landed one blow even?"

The acquittal vindicated O'Mara's strategy. He not only maintained that the state hadn't proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt, but riskily admitted he wanted to take on the "burden" of proving his client's "absolute innocence." He even wished, half-playfully, that the verdict form has a check box for "completely innocent."

 
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