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Judge refuses to delay Zimmerman trial, limits evidence on Martin's past

Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed Feb. 26, 2012, in a confrontation in a Sanford gated community with George Zimmerman, whose second-degree murder trial starts June 10.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was killed Feb. 26, 2012, in a confrontation in a Sanford gated community with George Zimmerman, whose second-degree murder trial starts June 10.
Published May 29, 2013

SANFORD — Defense lawyers for George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin, will be barred from mentioning Martin's marijuana use, fighting or high school suspension during opening arguments in Zimmerman's trial.

At a hearing in Seminole County Court on Tuesday, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson denied a string of defense motions that sought to portray Martin as a troubled teenager with a propensity for fighting and an interest in guns. Prosecutors argued that the evidence has nothing to do with the seven minutes that led to Martin's death on Feb. 26, 2012.

Zimmerman is set for trial on June 10 in the killing of Martin, an unarmed Miami Gardens 17-year-old whose death captured worldwide headlines, spurred racial tension and sparked scrutiny of Florida's self-defense law.

Zimmerman did not attend Tuesday's hearing, where the judge also declined a defense motion to delay the trial.

A self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman shot and killed Martin during a confrontation in a Sanford gated community, the Retreat at Twin Lakes, just north of Orlando.

He was not initially charged after claiming he acted in self-defense.

Prosecutors later charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. He says that Martin, while suspiciously loitering in the housing community, attacked him and during a life-or-death struggle, he had no choice but to use deadly force.

Last week, Zimmerman's defense team released text messages and photos obtained from Martin's cellphone that depicted the teen as a pot-smoking, would-be thug who spoke of school brawls and suspensions. Martin had been sent to stay with his father in Sanford after being suspended from school.

Prosecutors asked the judge to prohibit the defense from telling jurors about that evidence, saying it was "unfairly prejudicial" and wasn't relevant to what happened that night.

Zimmerman's defense lawyers countered saying that Martin's past marijuana use, or perhaps withdrawals from chronic use of the drug, may have sparked the teen's aggression.

"We have a lot of evidence that marijuana use had something to do with the event," attorney Mark O'Mara said, pointing out that Zimmerman called 911 to report a prowler who appeared to be on drugs, and convenience store video showed the teen "swaying" while buying candy shortly before the shooting.

But the judge disagreed, prohibiting any mention in opening statements of the past drug use, as well as the texts, social media posts and mention of his school suspension. The evidence could still come before jurors depending on what evidence is presented by prosecutors during the trial.

Nelson also said defense attorneys could not mention in opening statements that Martin had been in fights or witnessed brawls. O'Mara said he has a video Martin filmed of "two buddies beating up a homeless guy."

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Prosecutors said the information would only be used "to disparage Mr. Martin."

Expert testimony on Martin's marijuana use on the day of the shooting— an autopsy revealed he had the drug in his system — will be the subject of later legal wrangling.

An attorney for Martin's family, Benjamin Crump, said the teen's parents were pleased with the judge's rulings on information they consider immaterial to the shooting.

"Trayvon Martin is not on trial," Crump said.

Nelson also refused to delay the trial after O'Mara insisted the defense had not had time to properly prepare for witnesses in the case, including a state audio expert who identified Martin's voice on a 911 recording crying out just before the shooting.

Also on Tuesday, the judge declined a defense request to allow jurors to visit the place where Martin was shot and killed, saying it was logistically impractical and would only confuse jurors.

O'Mara said he wanted jurors to get a feel for the dark cut-through between two rows of town houses in the spot where Martin was shot.

The judge also ruled that the massive jury pool, which could number 500, would not be sequestered during jury selection. She has not yet ruled on whether jurors chosen for the trial should be sequestered.

Nelson also denied a prosecution request for a gag order that would prohibit attorneys from talking about the case.

O'Mara said he is concerned potential jurors could be affected by publicity the case is receiving.

On Friday, the judge will consider arguments by lawyers representing the media against filming or photographing jurors.

O'Mara said Nelson's decisions would not affect how he presented his case.

"We were hoping that we would have some limitations on people commenting upon information that is not yet relevant," O'Mara said. "So the idea that the state will have to be careful about how they present their case — and certainly we're going be careful about how we present ours — is exactly what we were hoping for."

He said, however, that with the judge not delaying the trial the defense would "have a lot more work to do than we can get accomplished between now and June 10."

Information from the Miami Herald, New York Times and Associated Press was used in this report.


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