SANFORD — Prosecutors in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman scrambled Tuesday to undo damage to their case by one of their leading witnesses, a Sanford police officer who interviewed the defendant hours after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin.
The witness, Officer Chris Serino, testified under cross-examination Monday that Zimmerman seemed to be telling the truth when he said he had fired his gun in self-defense. The officer's admission made for a dramatic moment in the trial — and was a clear boon for the defense — but drew no immediate objection from the state. The court recessed for the day afterward.
But early Tuesday, citing case law, the state successfully argued that Serino's comments about Zimmerman's veracity ought to be disregarded by the jury. The judge then instructed the jurors, who are being sequestered during the trial, to ignore the officer's statement, nearly 17 hours after it had been made.
Serino's testimony, in the second week of the trial in Seminole County Court, was the latest setback for prosecutors, whose own witnesses have repeatedly helped to bolster the defense's case. Zimmerman has said he shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, in self-defense after the Miami teenager attacked him on a drizzly night in February 2012. Prosecutors charge that Zimmerman, who is half Peruvian, racially profiled Martin, who was black, as he followed him through the townhouse complex where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting.
On Monday, jurors watched and listened to audio and visual recordings of a calm and willing Zimmerman being interviewed by the police shortly after the shooting. One officer testified that he had shown no trace of malice or ill intent. After prosecutors probed inconsistencies in Zimmerman's story — such as whether Martin jumped out of the bushes, as the defendant once claimed — two police officers who took the stand said that the disparities were slight and that the broad narrative of self-defense offered by Zimmerman remained largely unchanged over the course of several interviews.
On Tuesday morning, Mark Osterman, a federal air marshal who described Zimmerman as "the best friend I've ever had," and who wrote a book about the shooting, also recounted what Zimmerman told him about the events of Feb. 26, 2012.
His account largely matched what Zimmerman told the police. There was one exception: Osterman's contention that, according to Zimmerman, Martin had grabbed his gun but that he managed to get it back. This contradicts Zimmerman's account to the police, in which he said Martin seemed to be reaching for his gun.
There are other strikes against Zimmerman. Serino, who took the stand again Tuesday for more questions from the state and the defense, said the derogatory words Zimmerman used as he was pursuing Martin connoted ill will — a necessary component of second-degree murder. The police officers were also clearly disturbed that Zimmerman, a volunteer community watchman, got out of his car to pursue Martin on foot, especially after a police operator had told him he need not do so.
Last week, a young woman who had been on the phone with Martin that night testified that he told her he was being followed by a "creepy" man, and that she later heard her friend crying, "get off, get off."
One of the clearest witness accounts of the fight, which proved damaging to the prosecution, came from John Good, a neighbor of Zimmerman's. He testified last week that he saw a person in dark clothes on top of and repeatedly striking someone light skinned who was lying on the ground and wearing red or white. Zimmerman was wearing a red jacket that night.
The Sanford police did not charge Zimmerman in the killing, citing insufficient evidence and Florida's expansive "stand your ground" law; the decision provoked national protests. Six weeks later, after a special prosecutor was assigned to the case, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder.
But as the strength of the defense's case grew with witness after witness for the state, legal experts said that the state had overreached and that it should have filed manslaughter charges instead.
The jury can still find Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, but it would fall to the state to argue for that conclusion without appearing to concede a weakness in its case.