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The Backwards Trial: After Two Bizarre Weeks, Zimmerman Prosecution Rests

In a brilliant bit of timing, O’Mara’s last question of the day, the last thing the jury heard and would surely remember, was:

“Do you think George Zimmerman was telling you the truth?”

Serino: “Yes.”

De la Rionda did not object until the following morning. Judge Nelson did sustain his objection, but in so doing, had to read O’Mara’s question and Serino’s answer aloud to the jury to tell them what to disregard. This is a classic example of a very important bell that cannot be unrung.

Valerie Rao, Jacksonville Medical Examiner

Rao is a handpicked medical examiner who had absolutely nothing to do with this case. She never examined Zimmerman; all of her testimony came from reviewing photos of his injuries. She is something of a questionable character. Attorney/analyst Andrew Branca noted:

Indeed, not since the Frye hearing was an expert in the case perhaps as subject to questioning on such issues than Dr. Rao. Indeed, at her previous State appointment as medical examiner in a different part of the state, there were years of complaints about her unsanitary procedures, including such [STOP IF EATING DINNER] pleasantries as Dr. Rao washing her feet in the autopsy sink, using her bare hands during procedures, and even accusations of exposing doctors to deadly diseases. Ultimately she was removed from that position …

But Dr. Rao got a very lucky break, indeed, in the form of the favor of State Prosecutor Angela Corey, a powerful figure in State politics. Corey provided Dr. Rao with an interim appointment as Medical Examiner in Jacksonville, a position later changed to a permanent appointment by the Governor.

The prosecution and Rao sought to minimize and even to deny the existence of many of Zimmerman’s injuries. On cross, O’Mara destroyed her credibility. Using multiple photos of Zimmerman’s injuries, he got her to admit that the injuries could have been caused by many more blows than she initially admitted, and that she had no actual idea of the blows that injured Zimmerman.

Rao’s credibility further evaporated when she refused to identify areas of injury already identified by previous medical personnel. Rao also admitted that Martin had injuries on his hands consistent with striking someone.

Under Florida law (and in many other states) a valid self-defense claim requires no injury at all, merely the belief of a reasonable person that they faced an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death. Yet on redirect, prosecutor John Guy continued the prosecution strategy of claiming that because Zimmerman didn’t suffer life-threatening injuries, he had no self-defense claim.

The prosecution also presented a fingerprint analyst and a DNA analyst, yet the presence of fingerprints or DNA -- or their absence -- has no bearing in proving the charge in this case.

The prosecution was also able to admit evidence of Zimmerman’s prior college records, which should open the door to Martin’s school records, a trail of criminal activity, and multiple suspensions that skewer any representation of Martin’s innocence. Two witnesses were presented: both taught a single general, lower-level survey class on the law and basic criminal justice procedures.

The prosecution hoped to establish that Zimmerman had substantial knowledge about Florida self-defense law and used that knowledge to fabricate a self-defense story to cover up his murder of Martin. Unfortunately for the prosecution, it quickly became clear that the teachers could not specify what they taught on that subject, if anything, and their textbooks were general, not specific to Florida. They could not testify that Zimmerman was present for such lectures, that he was tested on Florida self-defense law, or that he knew anything about it.

The testimony blew up in the face of the prosecution when a professor, who taught his course online, testified that Zimmerman had attended several non-mandatory sessions and told him that he one day hoped to be an attorney, specifically a prosecutor.

Part of prosecution strategy has been to portray Zimmerman as evil for hoping to become a police officer. The defense obliterated this irrelevant strategy by having every police witness portray police work honorably. All police witnesses acquitted themselves well, appearing as entirely professional, likeable, and decent officers and people. This will make it difficult, perhaps laughable, for the prosecution to suggest that Zimmerman’s law enforcement career desires somehow indicate a depraved mind (one of the elements of second degree murder in Florida).

Judge Nelson, considered by many observers to be prosecution-biased, became increasingly testy as the day wore on. She had earlier expressed her expectation that the prosecution would rest its case that day (Wednesday), but lengthy and irrelevant DNA testimony took most of the day.

Her anger was manifest when the defense once again asked for a continuance to depose Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, mentioning the fact that it was the overturning of her denial of that deposition that put them in the position of having no time to depose him before the trial began. She denied, yet again, a continuance for that purpose, apparently thinking that the defense could somehow arrange a deposition with a witness who obviously doesn’t want to be deposed during the time they use for sleeping or eating. They asked her to order the deposition of Crump on July 4, but she ignored them.

The final day of the second week of the prosecution’s case remained true to form in every respect, and also provided another glimpse -- actually, a substantial look -- into the prosecution’s closing arguments.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s Mother

She testified that the screaming voice in the Lauer 911 recording is Trayvon Martin. The prosecution, not wanting to open the field to anything she might know about Trayvon, kept their questions limited to only that. She parsed her answers to O’Mara’s questions so as not to concede even the most obvious points, even those not harmful to the prosecution. She appeared to be not only coached, but rehearsed.

It was clear that she was a prosecution witness through and through, a rarity in this case. It’s unfortunate that the jury will never hear that she has already won a seven-figure settlement, and has a continuing financial interest in the outcome of the case.

Jahvaris Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s Brother

Jahvaris confirmed his mother’s testimony and, like his mother, testified to nothing else. On cross, however, his credibility evaporated. O’Mara caused him to admit that when he first heard the recording he told many others he was not sure the voice was Trayvon’s, but later changed his mind. He too appeared to be coached, even rehearsed.

Dr. Shiping Bao, Medical Examiner

Dr. Bao, unlike Dr. Rao, actually conducted the autopsy on Trayvon Martin, which gave the prosecution the opportunity to display a wide variety of graphic autopsy photographs so that Bao could, in a perfunctory manner, identify them. The primary purpose, of course, was to elicit revulsion and sympathy in the jury as the jury had already seen the photos.

Dr. Bao initially appeared to be professional. His testimony mirrored his official autopsy report, but under questioning by Don West, Bao began to avoid directly answering questions, seeking over and over to qualify them, particularly trying to repeatedly lecture the court on the difference between opinion and fact. Even Judge Nelson had to repeatedly, and with substantial frustration, tell Bao to listen to questions, answer them directly, and then to wait for the next question.

Bao had a number of surprises, including the admission that he remembered nothing at all about the autopsy or about virtually anything or anyone connected with it.

It is not unusual for professional witnesses such as police officers and medical examiners not to remember every detail of a case -- that’s why they write detailed reports -- but to remember nothing at all is bizarre. Bao also testified that he knew next to nothing about the protocols of autopsy, about what his assistants did, how they did it, why they did it, or when they did it, often saying that a given bit of knowledge wasn’t his job or he didn’t worry about that. Despite being the man responsible for the autopsy and all evidence related to it, he appeared to be disavowing all knowledge and responsibility.

Then the bomb dropped: Bao testified that he changed his mind about key conclusions in his report.