Thursday, December 14, 2017
Public safety

Records show George Zimmerman got D's in criminal justice classes

Prosecutors trying George Zimmerman on a second-degree murder charge accidentally released protected evidence Thursday, sending journalists and bloggers around the nation private academic transcripts showing that the neighborhood watch volunteer who aspired to become a judge did poorly on the classes in his major, criminal justice.

The prosecution also accidentally released a photo of Trayvon Martin's body, which both sides in the case had agreed to keep from public view. The corpse photo was a grainy cellphone picture taken in the dark by one of the people who lives near the shooting scene. It was posted Thursday on blogs that subscribe to the Duval County State Attorney's media email list.

Prosecutors recalled an email which contained Zimmerman's academic records from his Virginia high school and Seminole State College, in Sanford, where he studied criminal justice, but many media outlets had already reviewed the material. The records show Zimmerman's mediocre grades had led to academic probation.

He got D's in Introduction to Criminal Justice and Juvenile Delinquency, and a C in a course called Evil Minds —Violent Predators. He failed algebra and astronomy and had been placed on academic probation in 2011.

At one point, his grade-point average dropped to .5. His A's in English, criminal litigation and a Marriage and Family class boosted his overall G.P.A. to 2.3.

In late 2011, he was declined an associate's degree because he had failed a class and did not have the credits to graduate. He was expelled from the school about three weeks after the killing, when the struggling student suddenly became the focus of a national media firestorm for having killed an unarmed teenager.

Zimmerman claimed he shot Trayvon in self-defense after the Miami Gardens teen attacked him.

Legal experts said prosecutors probably reviewed Zimmerman's school records because they could suggest that he had enough knowledge of criminal justice to concoct a self defense claim on the fly.

"To the extent that he had some knowledge of self defense, he would have been able to put together a story that made some sense," said Frederick Leatherman, a retired Seattle defense lawyer and legal-issues blogger who has reviewed all the Zimmerman case evidence. "As he conjured up this story, he didn't know that a lot of the forensics would not match."

Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, declined to comment about the accidental release of evidence Thursday. A spokeswoman for State Attorney Angela Corey released a statement saying the documents were inadvertently released without being reviewed, and asked reporters not to publish them because school records are exempt from Florida's public-records law.

O'Mara posted an announcement on his website Thursday confirming that he will seek a "stand your ground" hearing for his client. "Stand your ground" is the controversial state law that removes Floridians' duty to retreat from dangerous situations if they believe they're at risk of great harm.

"Now that the State has released the majority of their discovery, the defense asserts that there is clear support for a strong claim of self-defense," the statement said.

The hearing, the statement said, would function as a "mini trial" in which the defense will present the same arguments, witnesses, experts, and evidence that would be put forward at trial. The judge would decide whether the case should proceed, or if Zimmerman should be granted both criminal and civil immunity.

Unlike a criminal trial, where prosecutors must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, in this hearing the burden would be on the defense to show that Zimmerman reasonably believed that the use of his weapon was necessary to "prevent great bodily harm to himself at the hands of Trayvon Martin," the statement said.

Miami defense lawyer Emilia Diaz-Fox said O'Mara may have a rough road ahead, particularly because a police call recorded Zimmerman getting out of his car to follow Trayvon.

Diaz-Fox represented a client who waved a pistol at someone who punched him in the face during a road-rage incident. The client found himself charged with attempted second-degree murder, even though he was seated in his car when the man attacked him.

A circuit judge declined his "stand your ground" motion, and the Third District Court of Appeal agreed. After a three-year legal battle, the Miami-Dade State Attorney dropped the charges.

" 'Stand your ground' is no shoo-in," she said. "You have to have very strong facts to be able to prevail."

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Published: 12/14/17