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Saturday, December 3, 2016

The prosecutors of George Zimmerman are taking a drubbing in the media, as well as in the courtroom.

Some of the criticism is well deserved. Lawyers for the state sat there as passively as the spectators, while their own witnesses defanged the case. The words “Objection, your honor!” seldom rang out as Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, roamed far and wide during cross-examination.

Based on the trajectory of last week’s testimony, it’s almost inconceivable that Zimmerman will be convicted of second-degree murder — a charge that should never have been filed in the first place.

The facts in the killing of Trayvon Martin pointed to manslaughter from the beginning, and even then prosecutors would have had their hands full. They might yet persuade the jury to find Zimmerman guilty of that lesser charge, but it will require a deft change of strategy.

What happened in Sanford on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, was destined to become politically combustible because of the circumstances — an unarmed black teenager shot dead by a neighborhood crime-watch patroller who’d decided that the youth was “up to no good” and began to follow him.

Martin was committing no crime. He was returning from a store to a townhouse where he was staying. The pursuit by Zimmerman was foolhardy and disastrous.

Still, police and local prosecutors initially chose not to press charges because they felt Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was credible.

It was the tape of his first phone call to police, when a dispatcher advised him not to pursue Martin, that outraged so many people. Zimmerman can be heard noting Martin’s race and using an expletive referring to “punks.”

A special prosecutor, Angela Corey, was brought in to review the case. Six weeks later Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. Whether or not this was a reaction to public pressure is speculative.

In any event, the murder charge was an overreach that raised expectations while reducing the chances for a conviction.

Typically in Florida, a second-degree murder case must have the elements of ill will or spite, a state of mind more easily proven in a fatal bar fight than a chance encounter. Zimmerman had never met Martin, so prosecutors were left to use Zimmerman’s words on the police call as evidence of a general antipathy, if not toward blacks then towards a class of what he perceived as neighborhood “punks.”

The shooting itself is being portrayed by the state as a willful act by Zimmerman. His version is that he was defending himself after Martin jumped him.

In reality what happened that night between the two was likely a chaotic burst of mutual fear and adrenaline.