RELEASED

04.20.12

George Zimmerman Released on $150,000 Bond, ‘Sorry’ For Trayvon’s Loss

At the bond hearing, an investigator says Zimmerman confronted Martin but doesn't know who struck first. Aram Roston reports from the courtroom on what it could mean for the trial.

The bond hearing in courtroom 5D at Seminole County courthouse was fairly routine until George Zimmerman got up and shuffled from the defense table to the witness stand. Virtually all the onlookers seemed to raise their heads at once.

Zimmerman was wearing a suit and tie, rather than the prison jumpsuit he donned for his arraignment last week. But the suit was too big—he appeared to be wearing bulky body armor underneath it—and his hands were cuffed to a chain ringed around his waist. The overall effect was to make him look small and feeble. 

In his first direct words to the family of Trayvon Martin, whom he shot and killed nearly two months ago, Zimmerman said softly but clearly, “I’m sorry for the loss of your son.”

Prosecutors say Zimmerman committed second-degree murder. His brief statement to the family did not acknowledge that he had pulled the trigger, nor did he say anything about what happened the night he shot the unarmed Martin, who had been walking home through Zimmerman’s housing complex. 

After more than two hours of testimony and argument, Judge Kenneth Lester granted Zimmerman’s request for bond, although under tight conditions. He is expected to be released from custody on $150,000 bond in the next few days.

Martin’s mother and father, sitting in the second row behind the prosecutors’ table, had seemed tense throughout the hearing, and rushed from the courtroom after the decision. Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, later said they were “devastated” by the decision to release Zimmerman on bond, and that Zimmerman’s apology was “self-serving.” 

Much of the ground covered by the prosecution and defense on Friday morning was familiar to anyone following the case, but some new information emerged. 

One key dispute was whether Zimmerman had injuries after the shooting. The prosecution’s investigator, Dale Gilbreath, conceded under defense questioning that Zimmerman did have cuts to the back of his head. Gilbreath, who signed the short affidavit that is the basis for the murder charge, testified affably under a withering stream of questions by Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara. Zimmerman had “two lacerations to the back of his head,” Gilbreath acknowledged. The injuries, he said, “are consistent with a harder object striking his head.” 

“Do you know who started the fight?” O’Mara asked. “No,” the investigator said.

This could be a crucial piece of support for Zimmerman’s expected claim of self-defense. As it has been widely reported, he told police that before he fired the fatal shot, Martin was on top of him, striking his head against the concrete. 

Gilbreath confirmed that the fatal gunshot was at close range; he said there was powder residue and “stippling” on Martin’s body.

Gilbreath also admitted that he didn’t know who struck the first blow. The prosecution’s affidavit alleged that a struggle had occurred before the shooting, but did not indicate how it started.

“Do you know who started the fight?” O’Mara asked.

“No,” Gilbreath said.  

But Gilbreath and Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda both insisted that Zimmerman had “confronted” Trayvon Martin first. 

The answers to both questions—about whether Zimmerman was injured, and about who struck the first blow—may be critical to his claim of self-defense.

“In general, if you provoke the use of force, you are not allowed to use the [Stand Your Ground] defense,” Tamara Lave, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, told The Daily Beast.  

The key is what it means to initiate a confrontation. Even if the prosecution can’t prove Zimmerman struck the first blow, it may have a strong case that he was the initiator, said Michelle Jacobs, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. “Probably following him around would be initiation of the aggression,” she said. “But certainly if Zimmerman confronted Martin that would be an initiation of the aggression.” 

But Lave pointed out that even if Zimmerman initiated the confrontation, there are exceptions written into the Stand Your Ground law. For example, she said, a shooter could provoke a confrontation, but then later try to retreat, and still he could reasonably believe himself to be “in imminent danger.”