Prosecution's Clincher: 'Trayvon Martin Did Not Kill Himself'


Video via The Orlando Sentinel

This morning, during his closing statement to the jury in George Zimmerman's murder trial, defense attorney Mark O'Mara said he believed not only that the prosecution had failed to prove its case but that he and his co-counsel, Don West, had established their client's innocence beyond a reasonable doubt, even though the law does not require them to do so. I would not go that far, for some of the same reasons that prosecutor John Guy cited in his rebuttal as he urged the jury to convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder. But the uncertainties about what happened the night that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin hurt the prosecution much more than the defense.

"If he hadn't committed a crime," Guy asked, "why did he lie so many times?" Some of the statements Guy described as lies were merely imprecise. Contrary to what Zimmerman claimed, Guy said, Sean Noffke, the police dispatcher he talked to that night, never asked him to "get an address." No, not in so many words, but Noffke did ask for Zimmerman's location. According to Guy, Zimmerman also lied when he said he told Noffke he would meet the police at his car. In fact, Zimmerman did say that at one point, then changed his mind and said the officers should call his cellphone when they arrived. Did Zimmerman lie about the proposed rendezvous point, even though he knew the call was recorded? It seems more likely that he simply misremembered that detail.

There may also be innocent explanations for more significant inconsistencies: In one interview Zimmerman said Martin hit him "dozens" of times, for instance, and he told police that Martin was reaching for his gun, while he told a friend that Martin had actually grabbed it. But Guy portrayed these exaggerations, not implausibly, as part of Zimmerman's attempt to justify his own actions by making Martin seem more menacing than he was. Guy also argued that Zimmerman's visible injuries would have been more severe if his head had repeatedly hit the pavement and that Zimmerman lied when he said Martin had squeezed his nose during the fight.

These are all debatable points, which is why it is hard to have complete confidence in Zimmerman's account of the fight. But the jury does not need that to acquit him. All it needs is reasonable doubt as to whether the prosecution's version of events is true, and there is plenty of that. The prosecution's argument that Zimmerman acted based on "ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent," which is an essential element of second-degree murder, leans heavily on two curses that Zimmerman uttered while talking to Noffke: fucking, as in "fucking punks," and asshole, as in "these assholes, they always get away." To give you a sense of how important those eight words are to the prosecution's case, Guy called the former phrase "a window into a man's soul." The prosecutors have literally amplified that argument by angrily shouting Zimmerman's epithets while describing his state of mind that night. But Zimmerman himself spoke the words calmly and, according to Noffke, did not seem like a man on the verge of violence. Even when combined with Zimmerman's frustration over a recent series of burglaries in the neighborhood, the curses do not come close to proving he had "hatred in his heart," as Guy insisted.

The prosecution's case that Zimmerman is guilty of manslaughter hinges on several disputed details of the fight. There was dueling testimony, for example, regarding who was on top right before the gunshot and who can be heard screaming for help in the background of a 911 call. In the face of such conflicting evidence from sources of roughly equal credibility, the jury is not supposed to flip a coin; it has to give Zimmerman the benefit of the doubt. In his closing statement yesterday, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda kept coming back to unresolved facts, urging the jurors to pick one version or the other and find Zimmerman guilty based on the possibility that events could have unfolded in the way suggested by the prosecution. As O'Mara pointed out, that is the tack usually taken by defense attorneys, not by prosecutors, who must do much more than tell a plausible story.

I can think of a couple plausible stories that would make Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter or maybe even second-degree murder. Perhaps he honestly believed shooting Martin was necessary to prevent death or serious injury, but that belief was not reasonable, as required for a self-defense claim under Florida law. He may have panicked after being attacked by Martin and used lethal force in circumstances that did not justify it. Or maybe Martin, after beating Zimmerman to give him a lesson about following people for no good reason, was getting up and letting Zimmerman go, at which point Zimmerman shot him in anger at the humiliating thrashing. Both of these stories are more plausible than the one told by the prosecution, which has Zimmerman mistaking Martin for a burglar, then setting out to kill him because he was sick and tired of those "fucking punks." But scenarios in which Zimmerman panicked and overreacted or shot Martin out of anger after suffering a beating are no more plausible than a scenario in which Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life.

Faced with the reality that it is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense when he shot Martin, Guy reverted to a theme emphasized by de la Rionda yesterday. He said "the bottom line" is that "if that defendant had done only what he was supposed to do—see and call—none of us would be here." But the prosecution concedes that Zimmerman did nothing illegal up to the moment when the encounter turned violent, and his decision to follow someone who struck him as suspicious, however unfair or unwise, does not make him guilty of manslaughter, let alone second-degree murder. Later in his rebuttal, Guy offered a different, equally erroneous explanation of the issue at the center of this case. "The bottom line," Guy said, "is who is responsible for Trayvon Martin lying on that ground? Trayvon Martin did not kill himself." That much the prosecution has established beyond a reasonable doubt. But not much else.

After instructing the jurors, Judge Debra Nelson sent them off to deliberate at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time.