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.
Martin knew he was being followed by a stranger. And though he’s not here to tell what he was thinking, it’s reasonable to assume that the teen felt threatened. Who wouldn’t?
Equally believable is that the punch or punches Martin threw were meant to end the threat. If he spotted Zimmerman’s gun, it makes perfect sense that he’d try to wrest it away before it could be used against him.
For his part, Zimmerman was undoubtedly scared witless, too. Surely he didn’t expect to end up in a scuffle with the guy he’d been tailing through the subdivision, a person he suspected of being a criminal.
That there was a physical altercation is undisputed. Who initiated it is unknown. In one of his accounts, Zimmerman says Martin jumped out of the bushes and attacked him, the problem with that scenario being the absence of bushes at the scene.
Prosecutors have other inconsistencies to work with, as well. Zimmerman told a friend that Martin had actually grabbed his gun, which is not what Zimmerman had told the cops.
The two ended up on the ground, one yelling for help. Zimmerman said it’s his voice overheard on a neighbor’s 911 call. A friend of Martin’s said the frightened cries belong to the teen.
Moments later Zimmerman pulled the trigger, and Martin lay dying from a single wound to the chest. Regardless of the eventual verdict, one crystal truth derived from the testimony is how needless and random was the tragic sequence that unfolded in the darkness that night.
George Zimmerman alone set in motion the events that led to Trayvon Martin’s death. Once Zimmerman decided to follow the kid, and continued following him, no good ending lay ahead.
After what happened in the courtroom last week, those who seek justice on Martin’s behalf might be feeling their hopes slip. Although juries can surprise you, the best chance now for prosecutors is to start clearing the path for a lesser charge of manslaughter.
This was never a legitimate murder case, not by the law as it stands. What a sad thing for both sides that the state aimed too high.
(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)