The Orlando SentinelThe Orlando SentinelDon West, one of George Zimmerman's defense attorneys, apologized for his poorly received knock-knock joke both before and after he told it. Toward the beginning of his opening statement this morning, West introduced the joke this way:

Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying. So let me—at considerable risk, I'd like to say—I'd like to tell you a little joke. I know how that may sound, a bit weird in this context, under these circumstances. But I think you’re the perfect audience for it, as long as if you don't like it, or don't think it's funny or appropriate, that you don't hold it against Mr. Zimmerman; you can hold it against me if you want, but not Mr. Zimmerman. If I have your assurance that you won't, here's how it goes. 

When he returned to the courtroom after the lunch break this afternoon, West apologized again, blaming the stony response to the joke on his inept delivery. There may also have been a problem with the material:

Knock, knock.

Who's there?

George Zimmerman.

George Zimmerman who?

All right, good, you're on the jury.

Even the crickets were silent. "Nothing?" West said, amazed. "That's funny," he insisted, "after what you folks have been through the last two or three weeks. Let's get on to, however, the serious business of why we're here."

Just reading those words again makes me flush with sympathetic embarrassment. The problem was not just that West ill-advisedly sought to open with a joke right after saying, "This is a sad case, of course. As one of your fellow jurors commented during the jury selection process, a young man lost his life; another is fighting for his. There are no winners here." The problem was also that the joke could easily be misconstrued. I gather that West meant to be understood as commiserating with the jurors, who had just completed a rigorous selection process aimed at weeding out people who already had formed opinions about the widely and heavily publicized case. But the joke also could be interpreted as a poke at the jurors themselves, implying that they must be incurious and out of touch to have been deemed qualified to hear the case.

When he was not actively alienating the jury, West did manage to outline Zimmerman's defense. "I think the evidence will show that this is a sad case," he said, "that there are no monsters here." At the same time, by necessity, he portrayed Trayvon Martin as the aggressor. Although Zimmerman initially followed Martin, West said, he stopped after a police dispatcher told him "we don't need you to do that." West said Martin, by contrast, could have returned to his father's house but instead chose to confront Zimmerman, who "shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after being viciously attacked." To back up that claim, West cited Zimmerman's head injuries, which he said were "consistent with having his head slammed into concrete." He also described the anticipated testimony of a neighbor who says he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman. The neighbor "called it a 'ground and pound,'" West said. "That's the words he used. A 'ground and pound' is when you're mounted on someone, they are helpless, and you are basically beating them senseless."

Zimmerman's lawyers do not have to convince the jury this is what actually happened; they just have to make the account plausible enough to introduce reasonable doubt as to Zimmerman's guilt. The prosecution therefore has a hard row to hoe, especially since it is trying to prove not just that Zimmerman did not have a reasonable fear of serious injury or death but also that he acted out of "ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent." 

You can watch the trial here.