Turning Point

07.10.13

Experts: George Zimmerman Just Caught a Big Break

Did a forensic pathologist just save George Zimmerman’s tail? Christine Pelisek on how one key witness turned the high-profile murder trial on its head.

In a riveting day of testimony, an expert on gunshot wounds scored huge points for the defense in the murder trial of 29-year-old former neighborhood-watch captain George Zimmerman.

On Tuesday, forensic pathologist Vincent DiMaio testified that the gunshot wound that killed Trayvon Martin likely occurred when Martin was on top of Zimmerman, validating a key part of Zimmerman’s own account. DiMaio, a gunshot-wound expert who has testified in dozens of trials including that of music producer Phil Spector and killer cop Drew Peterson, said the unarmed Florida teen was “over him, leaning forward” at the time he was shot.

“The wound itself, by the gap and the powder tattooing ... indicates that this is consistent with Mr. Zimmerman’s account that Mr. Martin was over him, leaning forward at the time he was shot,” DiMaio testified.

DiMaio also said he believes Martin was conscious for about 10 to 15 seconds after he was shot, but died within three minutes. Shortly after Zimmerman killed Martin, he told police that the 17-year-old had exclaimed, “You got me.”

“This is not exactly a complicated case, forensically,” DiMaio said.

The testimony by DiMaio, who served until 2006 as chief medical examiner of San Antonio, Texas, and is the author of a forensic pathology handbook as well as a book about gunshot wounds called Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics, and Forensic Techniques, threw a wrench in the prosecution’s case against Zimmerman, whom they have portrayed as a hard-charging vigilante whose goal was to rid the neighborhood of young punks. Zimmerman’s defense attorneys have contended that Zimmerman tragically killed Martin on the night of February 2012 in self-defense after the black teen sucker-punched him in the face and pounded his head on concrete.

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Dr. Vincent Di Maio testified that the forensic evidence demonstrates that Trayvon Martin was on top of George Zimmerman when he was shot.

“[DiMaio’s] testimony was very helpful for the defense,” said Los Angeles criminal-defense attorney Alison Triessl, who runs a website called wildabouttrial.com. “He injects science behind Zimmerman’s account of what happened and gives it credibility. It’s critically important and it really does a lot of damage to the prosecution’s theory that George Zimmerman was on top of Trayvon Martin.”

“It gives George’s story an air of truth,” agreed Debra Ferwerda, a Seminole County, Florida, criminal-defense attorney. “He basically gave a lot of credibility to George’s statement. He was the second-best witness for the defense after John Good.” (Good testified that he saw two men in a "tussle" outside his home the night of the killing and that the person on top of the altercation was Martin.)

During his day on the stand, DiMaio, who worked as a pathologist for 40 years and has performed over 9,000 autopsies, told the jury that he has worked as a consultant since 2007 and makes $400 an hour to be on the stand. So far, he said, he had charged the defense $2,400.

“[Prosecutors] were hoping to get a big number out of him,” said Ferwerda, in order to suggest that his testimony was biased. But, she said, the state did score some points by bringing up experiments on animals that DiMaio performed in his past. “It gives everyone an ick feeling,” she said. “Thirty years ago, they would shoot the animals and see how long they lived to determine the effect of a bullet in certain parts of the body. It’s almost like dissecting frogs in class.”

“He was a very solid witness…In contrast to the experts in the Jodi Arias case.”

“It was a way of bringing DiMaio down a notch,” Ferwerda said. “He represented these despicable people.” Still, Ferwerda believes that the tactic won’t be nearly enough to sway a juror’s mind.

“He was a very solid witness,” said Triessl. “In contrast to the experts in the Jodi Arias case, [DiMaio] is so credible, and there was no damage that could be done to his CV and knowledge.”

By all accounts, DiMaio appears to be an unbiased expert in his field. In a 2010 interview with PBS, DiMaio talked about the merits of working for defense teams.

“Essentially, the forensic pathologist's mission is the truth,” he said. “It's not supposed to be for the police or against the police or for a family or against a family. You're supposed to be impartial and tell the truth. And that's why, when I was practicing as a medical examiner, I was glad to talk to the defense. I had absolutely no problem talking to the defense.”

He added: “And that's why, in my private time, I would do work for defense attorneys. Now, sometimes what I told them they didn't want to hear, and sometimes what I told them they wanted to hear. But I didn't care, because I was telling them the truth.”

During his testimony on Tuesday, DiMaio, who was shown numerous evidence photos of Zimmerman’s injuries, told the jury that Zimmerman would not have died from the two lacerations to the back of his head, but they were "indicative of a hard impact."

He also testified that the blows to Zimmerman’s head could have lead to symptoms of a concussion, and that injuries to the right side of his head were indicative of blunt force trauma. After perusing photos of Zimmerman’s bloody nose, DiMaio said his injuries looked like he had been punched in the nose.

DiMaio’s testimony was in direct contrast to that of Valerie Rao, a medical examiner called by the prosecution, who testified last week that Zimmerman’s injuries were "insignificant.”

But DiMaio, with his ballistics and forensic credentials, may have been more persuasive. Florida attorney Eric Matheny says DiMaio’s testimony is just one more nail in the coffin for the prosecution, which he believes has lost the upper hand during the course of the trial. “DiMaio’s credentials speak for himself. How he broke down the evidence was very damaging for the prosecution,” Matheny said.

To be sure, the prosecution wasn’t entirely hopeless. They appeared to notch a small victory with a line of questioning as to whether Zimmerman’s injuries could have been caused by a tree branch.

"You could have one of the injuries due to bumping against the tree, that's correct," said DiMaio. He also agreed that some of the injuries could have happened when the two men were rolling around on the concrete and grass.

DiMaio also at one point conceded that Martin could have attempted to pull away when he was fired on.

But that’s likely cold comfort. In yet another kick to the prosecution’s case, Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled on Monday that defense lawyers could bring in evidence that Martin had marijuana in his system at the time of the deadly confrontation.