Zimmerman: The Backwards Trial Resumes

Deadly force may be employed in self-defense when one reasonably believes that he, or another, is in imminent danger of suffering serious bodily harm or death. This is true in Florida and elsewhere -- there is no requirement that one be injured, nor is there a minimum threshold of injury.

Why? Because this is sensible. When under attack, you cannot possibly know what damage the next blow will cause. Will it render you unconscious and at the mercy of the attacker? Will it leave you crippled or brain-damaged? Will it kill you?

In “stand your ground” states like Florida, as long as you are legally present when attacked, you have no obligation to run away before using force -- though since Zimmerman had no opportunity to flee, that is not a factor in this case.

George Zimmerman’s account of the attack by Trayvon Martin has remained consistent from his initial written statement to his videotaped reenactment of the incident to the present. Observing Martin to be acting suspiciously in a neighborhood that had been experiencing a rash of burglaries and thefts, Zimmerman was on the phone with the police when Martin ran off, disappearing between two long rows of townhomes. Told by the dispatcher to keep him informed of what Martin was doing, Zimmerman left his truck to try to keep him in sight, but soon realized he lost him and told the dispatcher as much. Zimmerman agreed to meet the responding officers back at his truck, and as he was walking toward it, Martin came out of the darkness and demanded: “What’s your problem?” Zimmerman replied that he did not have a problem, and as he began to reach for his cell phone, Martin sucker punched him, breaking his nose, stunning and disorienting him, and knocking him to the ground.

Martin jumped astride Zimmerman, straddling him and raining blows on him in mixed martial arts style. Zimmerman screamed for help, but none was forthcoming. Martin repeatedly slammed Zimmerman’s head into a concrete sidewalk, and Zimmerman feared he was about to lose consciousness.

At this point, his jacket rode up, exposing his holstered 9mm handgun on his right side. Martin saw it and told Zimmerman: “You’re gonna die tonight,” and reached for Zimmerman’s gun. Zimmerman was a little faster, and fired a single round into Martin’s chest as he leaned over Zimmerman. Martin sat up, and Zimmerman was able to get out from under him and pin him to the ground. He thought he missed Martin. Within seconds, residents of the neighborhood -- and the police -- arrived. Zimmerman cooperated fully with the police, never requesting a lawyer.

Unlike Zimmerman’s account, the accounts of the prosecution witnesses would change, abruptly and dramatically, and certainly not to Zimmerman’s benefit.

Following opening statements, the prosecution normally produces a succession of fact witnesses, people that can testify to the facts -- the evidence -- necessary to establish the elements of the offense and to prove that the defendant committed it. Their ultimate job is to leave no room for reasonable doubt. In this case, the prosecution must also prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense.

But this is the George Zimmerman prosecution: a backwards case where the roles of the prosecution and defense are reversed.

Normally, prosecutors are careful to fully question each prosecution witness to obtain all of the evidence their testimony can produce. They do this so that the defense is not able to reveal previously undisclosed evidence, which tends to suggest prosecutorial concealment. But during the first week of this case, the prosecution established a pattern of asking only the bare minimum of their witnesses. In virtually every case, defense cross-examination reveals a great deal the prosecutors avoided bringing to light, and that information either fully supports George’s Zimmerman’s unchanging account, casts doubt on the “narrative” -- which is actually the prosecution’s case -- or both.

This bizarre turn of events has caused the prosecutors, particularly Bernie de la Rionda, to engage in the spectacle of aggressively cross-examining their own witnesses, trying to get them to mischaracterize, ignore, disown, or soft-pedal their testimony.

Another and disturbing pattern established by prosecution witnesses is that of changing their testimony in significant and ethically questionable ways. A number of prosecution witnesses have testified to important changes in their prior testimony they never before mentioned -- not in multiple law enforcement interviews or depositions. This directly suggests that they’ve not only been coached, but perhaps that the subornation of perjury is involved.

Rachel Jeantel is the prosecution’s star witness. Long reported to be Martin’s girlfriend, she was reportedly on the phone with Martin much of the day he died, and until his attack on Zimmerman. Jeantel is therefore an “ear-witness.” Benjamin Crump of the Scheme Team trumpeted her testimony as proof-positive that Zimmerman murdered Martin in cold blood, and the prosecution relied on her statements in charging and pursuing the case against Zimmerman.

In previous articles I noted that Jeantel would be a terrible witness. She is not only hard to understand, her testimony actually makes little sense. Even a cursory reading of her interview with de la Rionda revealed that not only did she fail to contradict Zimmerman’s account, she actually supported it.

Another issue for the prosecution has been its serial concealment of exculpatory evidence in violation of its obligation to provide that evidence to the defense. For many months, the prosecution concealed their knowledge that Jeantel committed perjury -- twice. Jeantel lied about her age, misrepresenting herself as 16 rather than 18 in an apparent attempt to hide behind juvenile privacy laws. She also lied when she said she did not attend Martin’s funeral because she was hospitalized, so upset was she by Martin’s death.

She lived down to expectations -- she mumbled, resisted answering questions directly, made little sense, and was actively hostile, particularly to the defense. So outrageous was her behavior I expected her to be held in contempt, though Judge Nelson allowed the behavior and seemingly protected her. At the end of the day, when defense attorney Donald West mentioned that she would have to return the folowing day, she announced that she was not going to come back. When West told the judge her testimony the next day would take at least two hours, Jeantel said: “What?”

During her second day of testimony, her behavior was more restrained. Someone, perhaps her attorney, obviously convinced her to behave more appropriately. Even so, she still rolled her eyes, displayed aggressive body language, and resisted saying anything that did not adhere to the narrative.

West was able to elicit many stunning admissions. For example: the entire Scheme Team was present at Jeantel’s interview with de la Rionda, which was conducted in Sybrina Fulton’s living room with Fulton sitting next to Jeantel. This is a dumbfounding admission, as Fulton is Martin’s mother. No ethical prosecutor would conduct an interview himself; that’s what investigators are for, and one was present but asked not a single question. By conducting the interview, de la Rionda made himself a witness. No ethical prosecutor would allow private attorneys with a financial or political interest to have anything to do with a criminal case. No competent prosecutor would ever allow a victim’s relative to sit in on an interview, to say nothing of seating his most important witness next to the mother of the victim. All of these are incredible lapses of common sense, legal ethics, and professional protocol.

It’s hardly a surprise that Jeantel testified that her lie about being hospitalized was due to Fulton’s presence. West kindly gave her an out and suggested that it was de la Rionda’s fault, and so it was. Even so, Jeantel testified that her answers in that interview, and the telephone interview she did with Crump, were coached. This is also a significant problem for Crump -- he filed an affidavit with the court stating otherwise. Due to Judge Nelson’s refusal to allow Crump to be deposed by the defense -- a decision that was overturned on appeal -- Crump has yet to be deposed, even though the trial is already underway. His deposition should be interesting to say the least, and will certainly not be to the prosecution’s benefit.

Jeantel was far from finished. She testified that after Martin spotted Zimmerman, he described him as a “creepy-ass cracker,” and shortly thereafter, several times, as a “n****.” This was astonishing for many reasons. Jeantel had never before -- not in multiple interviews with law enforcement, not in her interview with Crump, not in her deposition -- said those things. However, her manner of saying them was so garbled and hard to understand, that she and de la Rionda engaged in several minutes of dialogue with the court reporter as she struggled to get the testimony right. Jeantel also said that she thought Zimmerman might be a rapist, something else she had never before offered.

Some pundits and “narrative” supporters took Jeantel’s comments as gospel and suggested they meant Martin thought Zimmerman a homosexual rapist. Jeantel’s testimony was not for the faint of heart. In Narrative-think, this apparently would give Martin license to assault and brutally beat Zimmerman, despite the contrary politically correct implications of such comments and actions.

Jeantel shockingly testified that she did not consider “creepy-ass cracker” to be a racial statement. Jeantel also claimed that when Martin initiated the confrontation with Zimmerman -- an example of her testimony fully supporting Zimmerman’s account -- Martin asked, “What you followin’ me for?”  Zimmerman, according to Jeantel, replied: “What you doin‘ ‘round here?” West proved that during her statement with Crump, she claimed Zimmerman replied: “What are you talking about?” -- though Jeantel did say “what you doin’ ‘round here?” in her interview with de la Rionda.

In a tragicomic, almost painful moment, West presented Jeantel with a handwritten letter she claimed to have written to Fulton that explained -- very poorly -- her part. This was another bit of evidence withheld from the defense for months. West asked her to read the letter, and she hesitated for an uncomfortably long time, finally admitting that she could not “read cursive.” West handled her kindly, but it was clear she not only did not write the letter -- another lie -- she couldn’t read it.

Jeantel also admitted she and Martin never dated, though she suggested otherwise in her interview with de la Rionda, and Crump suggested otherwise as well.

As in the de la Rionda interview, she heard “grass” over the cell phone, and was never able to explain that, other than to add that the grass she heard was wet. She was consistent in one matter: she never heard fighting words or a fight.

There were many other instances of mangled testimony, butchered syntax, self-contradiction, bad behavior, and absolute absurdity. The testimony of the prosecution’s star witness not only did not help the prosecution, it supported Zimmerman’s account in a great many significant ways, and not merely because Jeantel left the stand with no credibility whatsoever.

Jenna Lauer is a real estate agent who lived at the Retreat at Twin Lakes on February 26, 2012. She was also a member of the Home Owner’s Association board. The attack took place essentially in her back yard. Lauer was an ideal witness: intelligent, attractive, photogenic, articulate, honest, unbiased, and self-assured. Any attorney would be delighted to have her helping their case, and the defense surely was. Unfortunately for the prosecution, she was a prosecution witness.

De la Rionda spent much of the first week trying to downplay the fact that it was nearly pitch black and raining heavily throughout the attack. Those factors do not in any way help the “narrative” -- quite the opposite. Lauer didn’t help, testifying that it had been raining heavily all day, and still was at 7:00 PM when the incident took place. Like Jeantel, she was an ear-witness, but was actually present. She didn’t actually see anything.

Lauer heard unintelligible voices that turned to scuffling, like people playing basketball on grass and concrete, both of which figured in the case. The scuffling gradually turned to “yelping,” and then desperate screams for help. It was Jeantel who called 911, allowing Zimmerman’s cries for help and the gunshot to be recorded. Lauer confirmed that only one person was calling for help.

Lauer testified that her neighbor, John Good, stepped outside, and she heard him saying something like “what the hell are you doing” but the screams for help continued. Her 911 call was played and the screams for help and gunshot were clearly audible, but no other voices could be heard.

In one comical moment at the expense of de la Rionda, he established that Lauer knew Zimmerman slightly, having seen him at several board meetings. De la Rionda asked if she could identify the screaming voice as his and she replied: “I couldn’t; I didn’t hear him yell like that in the meetings, so … ”. This was particularly ironic as de la Rionda tried mightily to get in the testimony of a voice analyst who claimed he could compare normal speech with frenzied screams. Actual scientists testified it was impossible, and that testimony was excluded.

On cross-examination, O’Mara elicited that whoever was yelling for help “sounded like they were desperate … they really needed help.” She said apart from Good, she heard no other voices. Neatly dispatching de la Rionda’s suggestion that because she didn’t hear Martin’s death threat to Zimmerman, he didn’t make one, Lauer testified that Good wasn’t audible on the 911 tape, either.

Lauer testified that the famous photo of Zimmerman with his flattened nose and blood streaming down his face taken at the scene was the result of Sanford police officer Wagner asking if she knew Zimmerman. She didn’t want to expose herself to possible danger, so he took the photo on his cellphone and brought it to her. She testified that because of his disfiguring injuries she couldn’t identify him as George Zimmerman that night.

Lauer did not allow de la Rionda to manipulate her. Her testimony fully supported Zimmerman’s account, leaving nothing for the prosecution.

Selma Mora was another impressive prosecution witness testifying for the defense. Mora is a native Colombian who is now a U.S. citizen, having lived in the U.S. for 12 years. On February 26, 2012, she lived to the southeast of Lauer, and her backyard also faced the attack. She had a Spanish interpreter, an issue to which some might take offense, but she explained that while she does speak English, for something this important she wanted to be precise and to make no mistakes.

Hearing “cries,” she heard the gunshot, but didn’t recognize it as a gunshot. Going outside, she saw two people. She said one was on the ground and the other on top of him in a position “like a rider.” She described his clothing as some sort of pattern “between black and red,” which accurately described Zimmerman’s black and red jacket.

As with Lauer, Mora’s account was completely consistent with Zimmerman’s account and not with the “narrative." Like Lauer, Mora was entirely credible.

John Good’s home was next door to Lauer’s. The attack also took place very nearly in his backyard. He was articulate, intelligent, obviously unbiased and credible. Unlike Lauer, he actually went outside and saw the aftermath of the attack. His testimony not only was completely consistent with Zimmerman’s account, it devastated the narrative.

Good testified that he saw a black guy wearing a black hoodie (which describes Martin) on top of a white or Hispanic guy wearing a red sweatshirt (which describes Zimmerman) who was yelling for help. The guy on top was “just throwing down blows on the guy kind of MMA-style.”

Good testified that he yelled at the men to stop and said he was calling 911. After O’Mara brought up his original statement to then SPD detective Serino, Good said the guy on top was hitting the guy on the bottom in a “ground-and-pound” manner, which is a mixed martial arts tactic where one fighter straddles another and repeatedly beats them.

De la Rionda was able to get Good to say that he didn’t actually see fists hitting flesh, but saw arms flying downward in that manner. This was a very small concession. Good solidly placed Martin atop Zimmerman, beating him just as Zimmerman has always maintained, and surely producing the kinds of injuries depicted in the prosecution’s evidence photographs.

The testimony of several other residents for the prosecution was far more favorable to the prosecution, yet provided very little support for the “narrative.” Even the police dispatcher that took Zimmerman’s call and the Sanford Police Neighborhood Watch coordinator not only ended up supporting Zimmerman, but the coordinator even admired and praised him.

Selene Bahadoor, a resident, was visibly reluctant to say anything favorable about Zimmerman. She came up with testimony of “left to right” running sounds -- a version of the narrative has Zimmerman pursuing Martin. Bahadoor had not offered this testimony in two previous police interviews and a deposition, which was exposed by the defense.

She claimed to have feelings of sympathy for the Zimmermans and for Martin’s family, implying that she was not at all biased -- but O’Mara got her to admit that she “liked” Martin’s Facebook page. He asked why she didn’t like Zimmerman’s, and she replied that she never had the opportunity.

He also confronted her with the fact that she signed a Change.org petition to “prosecute the killer of our son, Trayvon Martin.” She also admitted that, unlike her testimony that she did not want to be involved at all, she did a half-hour video with Matt Gutman of ABC News which may or may not have been aired.

Her evasive manner, obvious bias, less-than-forthcoming testimony, and potential lies destroyed her credibility.

Another resident, Jane Sudyka, lost her credibility with her testimony and 911 call. Sudyka insisted that three shots were fired; there is no doubt that only one was fired. She also testified that Martin was face down on the ground with Zimmerman standing over him at the moment the “shots” were fired, so that Zimmerman shot Martin in the back. This too is impossible.

She also testified that she heard two voices, attributing a loud, dominating voice to Zimmerman and a quiet, meek voice to Martin. On cross-examination, she agreed with West that she had never heard their voices, and was just guessing how they would sound based on assumptions.

Sudyka initially denied having appeared on national TV discussing the case, but was forced to admit that she appeared not only with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, but also with another journalist. Being completely wrong with her facts and this admission were not helpful to her credibility.

Jeannee Manalo, another resident, placed Zimmerman on top of Martin based not on observation, but on her assumptions of their relative sizes. She was forced to admit that her assumptions about Martin -- who was substantially taller than Zimmerman and was wearing large, baggy clothing -- came from photos several years old depicting him as a much smaller 12-year-old child. She eventually admitted she had no real idea who was where during the confrontation. She appeared to be an honest witness, but it was clear she was simply guessing.

There were several other witnesses, but they were far less consequential, and in many cases, merely procedural. More detailed accounts of all the testimony are available here and here.

The first week of the trial ended with the prosecution’s case exactly backwards. Rather than proving the elements of the offense and obliterating Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, even the prosecution’s star witness was an unmitigated disaster. The prosecution thus far has functioned almost entirely as an unpaid second defense team in a political case that should never have been brought.