Tuesday, January 23, 2018
News Roundup

Bay area lawyers examine the challenges of George Zimmerman's case

It's day one of George Zimmerman's murder trial: jury selection.

You're a lawyer on the case, sizing up the huge pool of strangers. Who do you want on your panel?

It's a scenario experts say is at least a year into the future and could be rendered nonexistent by a successful defense motion.

But that doesn't mean people aren't imagining it, or trying to figure out what a special prosecutor knows that they don't about the night a neighborhood watch volunteer shot an unarmed teenager.

If the most closely-watched case in America is on the minds of people who haven't tuned into a court hearing since O.J. Simpson, it's being followed with even more interest by lawyers who study the workings of justice.

Several bay area lawyers pondered some of the biggest questions about the Trayvon Martin case for the Times, all drawing from their experience as private defense lawyers who have also fought as prosecutors.

They broke down the second-degree murder charge — what exactly does it mean to have a "depraved mind?"

The "stand your ground" defense — will a judge buy it?

And what happens next?

Here's what everyone knows, at this point, about the case:

Trayvon Martin, 17, was returning from 7-Eleven with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, walking through the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes community where he and his dad were staying as guests, when he was spotted by the neighborhood watch captain who called 911 with a complaint.

George Zimmerman, 28, told the operator he'd seen a "real suspicious guy," up to no good, maybe on drugs, just walking in the rain and looking around. At one point, Zimmerman said the person ran, and the operator told him he did not need to follow.

But the two met. And Martin died with a bullet in his chest.

Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him.

But some saw the teenager as a victim of racial profiling, and heard Zimmerman uttering a slur in the 911 call, which others find unintelligible and prosecutors say was actually the word "punks."

Would the slur make a difference in a second-degree charge?

It may be consistent with "ill-will, hatred, spite or an evil intent," said attorney Eddie Suarez, but he has listened over and over and has not heard the slur.

And even if the suspicion was motivated by race, he said, that doesn't mean the killing was.

"I don't see much in the events of that night that make me believe it's an act of a depraved mind," Suarez said.

Neither does attorney Lyann Goudie, who hears second-degree murder and pictures someone shooting into a crowd, or spraying a house with bullets, showing an "indifference to human life."

"I mean, that type of conduct would be like pouring gasoline into someone's car when they're sitting in it and then throwing a match," said attorney Norman Cannella.

All of the lawyers interviewed found manslaughter more plausible considering what they do know, and adding a caveat that there are things they do not know. If Zimmerman disregarded the 911 operator and pursued Trayvon anyway, armed, a prosecutor could argue that was negligent.

Some members of the public hear Trayvon's voice on the 911 call, screaming for help.

If it was, in fact, determined to be Trayvon's voice, would that make a difference in Zimmerman's argument of self-defense?

It would to Suarez.

"That's not an attacker putting someone in a situation where Zimmerman is in fear of death."

The first punch is important, too. Someone can only claim justifiable homicide under Florida's "stand your ground" law if they are acting within the law.

"I don't see any defense theory in which Zimmerman is the attacker and can prevail," Suarez said. "If Trayvon overreacted to Zimmerman's following him, and punched him and threw him to the ground, to the point Zimmerman felt in danger, then I think Zimmerman wins."

Based on the sought charges, attorney Michael Benito thinks prosecutors must know some facts inconsistent with Zimmerman's statement.

"You, as a prosecutor, have the duty to file the highest criminal charge you can prove beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt," Benito said.

"Now could a jury find him guilty of manslaughter? Yes."

In the days and months ahead, both sides will learn more. The defense will get the investigative materials from the prosecution. Tests will come in. Witnesses will be interviewed in depositions. The process will take months, the lawyers said, and possibly more than a year.

In the end, a judge could dismiss the case entirely on a "stand your ground" motion. Or Zimmerman could plead guilty to a lesser crime — though Suarez views this as an "all or nothing" case that will end up in front of a jury.

At that point then, as he speculates, what kinds of jurors would he want on the case if he were a prosecutor?

"I want people who would say you never go out there and inject a gun into a neighborhood watch situation," Suarez said. "You always walk away before you pull out a weapon."

What about as a defense lawyer?

"I want people tired of crime," he said, "people that are more likely to act to protect their homes and their communities rather than to leave it to police.

"I want gun owners."

Goudie would want to know if any of the potential jurors have called 911.

"What prompted you to call?" she would ask. "What are some of the things that came into your mind before you decided to call?

"The key to success is having the right group of listeners," she said. "Who's going to be receptive to what I've got to say?"

To Cannella, pretrial publicity would be such a concern, it would be "almost malpractice" not to consider moving the trial outside of Sanford, where people might be more removed from the case, more fair and impartial.

Where, though, could one begin to look?

"You might find one from Tallahassee west. Or you might find one from Homestead south."

"Or," he added in a deadpan, "from New York City, north."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.

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