The Backwards Trial: After Two Bizarre Weeks, Zimmerman Prosecution Rests
The second week of testimony in the George Zimmerman trial closely followed the pattern established in the first: the prosecution presents its witnesses; they promptly support the defense’s case. Yet the prosecution’s trial strategy was revealed: present Trayvon Martin as a small, innocent child profiled and ruthlessly hunted down by a racist George Zimmerman, a wannabe cop whose frustrations at a string of burglaries and thefts in his neighborhood built to a rage that exploded in murder when he saw Martin apparently casing a home that had recently been burglarized. The evidence of this hatred and depravity is Zimmerman muttering obscenities about the criminals plaguing his neighborhood during his non-emergency call to police to report a suspicious person, and that he carried his handgun fully loaded and with a round in the chamber. (Of course, this is precisely how it was designed to be carried, and how the police carry theirs.)
The following summarizes the witnesses from the second week.
Dr. Hirotaka Nakasone
Dr. Nakosone is a renowned FBI expert in voice analysis, and was an impressive witness. The prosecution’s sole purpose for Dr. Nakasone’s testimony was to elicit an admission that a person familiar with someone’s voice might be best qualified to identify someone screaming in terror. However, Dr. Nakasone cautioned that such identification would only be the best of abysmal methods. This is enormously ironic in that it was Dr. Nakasone’s testimony in large part that cut the legs from under the prosecution’s desperate and unsuccessful attempt to allow “experts” that would have -- using non-scientific criteria and methods -- testified that it was Martin rather than Zimmerman screaming for help.
The obvious strategy of prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda was to later put Sybrina Fulton -- Martin’s mother -- on the stand to testify that the screaming voice is Trayvon Martin's. Yet Dr. Nakasone warned of the problem of listener bias, of hearing what one wants to hear, and unfortunately for the prosecution, the defense would later produce multiple Zimmerman family members who convincingly identifed the voice as Zimmerman’s. In addition, John Good’s testimony comes solidly down on the defense side, and Jenna Lauer’s testimony -- that the screaming voice was only one person and never changed -- will also be helpful.
Doris Singleton, Sanford Police Officer
Among the most important tasks of any defense counsel is to humanize their client for the jury, a difficult task with most criminals. Singleton’s testimony, including a recording of her interview with Zimmerman, fully supported his account. Particularly harmful to the prosecution was this exchange:
Singleton: "I had a silver cross on and he asked me if I was Catholic. I said, 'No. I'm Christian. Why are you asking?'"
Zimmerman replied that he noticed a silver cross she was wearing and said it’s "always wrong to kill" someone.
Singleton replied: “If what you're telling me is true then I don't think that's what God meant -- you couldn't save your own life.”
She testified that Zimmerman, who appeared to be shocked, said: "He's dead?"
She replied: "I thought you knew that.”
Investigator Chris Serino, Sanford Police Department
Serino is a controversial figure who is said to have favored prosecuting Zimmerman, but one would not know that by his testimony -- it almost entirely supported Zimmerman’s account. Serino depicted Zimmerman as a mild, even meek man who repeatedly told Serino he did not want to confront Martin, had no intention of catching him, and followed him only to keep him in sight to inform the police.
Under cross examination, defense attorney Mark O’Mara elicited from Serino that, throughout multiple interviews, Zimmerman remained consistent. He agreed that Zimmerman was completely cooperative and that nothing Zimmerman told him contradicted the physical evidence, officer statements, witness evidence, or any other facts. Zimmerman never displayed anger or disdain toward Martin. O’Mara asked if Zimmerman was ever “cagey” or “less than straightforward.” Serino replied: “No, he was being straightforward in my opinion.” Serino also testified that he saw no racism in Zimmerman or his actions.
In one particularly brilliant line of questioning, O’Mara asked if there was anything in Zimmerman’s words that would suggest an uncaring attitude. Serino replied: “No.” O’Mara asked if Zimmerman, during his first interview with Serino at 12:05 a.m. on February 27, 2012, was ever “cavalier,” like: “Can I go home now? Are we done here?” Serino replied that Zimmerman was not.
This is particularly ironic in that Rachel Jeantel, upon learning she would need to return for a second day of testimony, behaved exactly that way and spoke words to that effect.
Serino acknowledged he was under great pressure to complete the investigation, and that it caused him to proceed more quickly than he liked. Surprisingly, he volunteered:
In this particular case, he [Zimmerman] could have been considered a victim too.
One of the week’s most destructive revelations for the prosecution occurred just before the court adjourned for the first day. In an attempt to trick Zimmerman, Serino suggested that Martin’s cellphone might have recorded video of everything that happened. He told Zimmerman: “If it’s there and you haven’t told us, it will be very bad for you.” The cell phone was dead, but Zimmerman didn’t know that. Zimmerman immediately replied:
Thank God. I was hoping someone videotaped it.
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?”
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.
Bao testified that he originally thought that Martin might have been alive for one to three minutes after being shot, and would have been entirely unable to move. Now, he thought the time frame to be from one to ten minutes, and wasn’t sure if Martin could have moved or not.
Bao’s earlier conclusion was that the amount of THC (marijuana) in Martin’s blood would have had no physical or mental effects. His new conclusion was that there might have been mental effects, but he phrased it oddly.
Another amazing admission was that Bao had done independent research on these issues and written his own set of notes -- notes not in any official records -- which he brought to court and began to testify from, an extraordinary and dumbfounding thing by itself. West, of course, asked to see them, and Bao was very reluctant to allow that, or to allow the court, at Nelson’s order, to copy and disseminate them to the prosecution and defense.
Nelson bizarrely ruled that after they were used in court, the copies would be destroyed.
It’s hard to imagine what she was thinking. Any such notes brought into court and used in testimony are automatically fair game and must be provided to both sides. In addition, they must be entered into the trial record, particularly in case of appeal. She did eventually relent and they were entered into evidence.
At the conclusion of Bao’s destructive testimony, the prosecution rested its case, leading to a motion by the defense, as expected, for a directed verdict. Also as expected, the defense argued the law, the evidence, and precedents. The prosecution, in a loud and hysterically emotional manner, argued “The Narrative.”
The prosecution engaged in misrepresentation of evidence and outright falsehoods. Prosecutor Rich Mantei claimed that four separate witnesses testified that Zimmerman pursued Martin. In fact, only one witness -- Selene Bahadoor -- testified that she saw light or shadows moving from “left to right,” and her testimony appeared for the first time in court. Mantei also repeated, at every possible opportunity, that Martin was shot in the heart, and every possible variation of that. He implied that Zimmerman took careful aim, intending to shoot Martin directly in the heart (there is no evidence of that whatsoever).
The prosecution’s case ended with nothing but conjecture and supposition to disprove Zimmerman’s self-defense claim. As to Zimmerman’s depraved mind, Mantei had nothing more to suggest than the idea that merely shooting someone is prima facie evidence of ill will, hatred, and a depraved mind. This is an outrageous misstatement of the law. If this were true, there could be no such thing as self-defense, for any shooting regardless of the circumstances must be murder. And this was offered up as proof of the elements of the crime.
The prosecution rested and Judge Nelson demanded the defense begin their case immediately. The first defense witness, Gladys Zimmerman -- George Zimmerman’s mother -- identified the screaming voice as belonging to George.
The most compelling witness was Jorge Meza, George Zimmerman’s uncle. He retired from the Army as a command sergeant major, a rank few ever reach, and became a deputy sheriff -- a job he still holds -- to continue to serve. His commanding presence hasn’t diminished in the least. An extraordinary aspect of Meza’s testimony is how he first heard the Lauer 911 recording. He was aware of Zimmerman’s involvement in a shooting, but knew little else, and was determined to stay completely out of it. One night he was working at his computer, his TV behind him. His wife was watching the news, and the Lauer recording was played. Upon hearing the screams for help, Meza immediately said “that’s George,” and asked his wife what was on TV. He learned that it was the Lauer recording. “I felt the screams in my heart,” he said. The jury doubtless took this to heart as well.
With that, the trial ended for the week. Even the New York Times admitted that the prosecution’s witnesses aided the defense.
Two weeks of prosecution witnesses ended without the prosecution proving, beyond a reasonable doubt, the three elements of the offense. As they previously offered no probable cause to prove those elements in the affidavit for the charge, this is hardly surprising. In the many months between Zimmerman’s arrest and trial, the prosecution could find no new evidence to demonstrate that the decision of the Sanford police and the local prosecutor to file no charge was wrong. The prosecution was also unable to prove beyond any doubt that Zimmerman’s self-defense account was unsupportable. In fact, most of their witnesses supported it, either fully or in part.
For readers unfamiliar with the workings of the law and the criminal justice system, it’s difficult to explain how utterly amazing and bizarre this is.
As I’ve previously written, it’s as though the entire system suddenly flipped backwards. For a prosecutor to complete his case and to be unable to disprove self-defense, offering nothing but theories unsupported by any credible evidence, and for a prosecutor to be unable to offer evidence to fulfill the elements of the offense is simply astonishing.
It demonstrates yet again: this case should never have been filed.
As bad as the prosecution’s case has been, it can only get worse for them in the next few weeks as the defense goes on offense.