On Trial

07.11.13

George Zimmerman Trial: The Prosecution’s Dramatic Closing Arguments

In an emotional speech that included a reference to Martin Luther King Jr., the state summed up its case against George Zimmerman. Jacqui Goddard reports from court.

Trayvon Martin died because George Zimmerman acted as a “wannabe cop” armed with “the equalizer,” jurors heard Thursday, as the prosecution showed a photograph of the teenager’s corpse and told them, “His body speaks to you even in death.”

In a dramatic and emotional closing speech by lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda, the jury was urged to use their “God-given common sense” to find the defendant guilty of second-degree murder, because his misplaced opinion that Martin may have been a criminal was at the heart of the tragedy.

“A teenager is dead. He is dead through no fault of his own. He is dead because another man made assumptions … Unfortunately, because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin no longer walks on this earth,” said de la Rionda, his voice slightly cracking.

“He was wearing a hoodie. Last I heard, that’s not against the law, but in this man’s eyes he was up to no good. He presumed something, he followed him, he tracked him, because in the defendant’s mind this was a criminal and he was tired of criminals.”

Video screenshot

Lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda made an emotional closing speech Thursday.

Zimmerman, who faces up to life in prison if convicted, stared ahead with a blank expression, blinking hard. Occasionally his eyes seemed to glisten. Behind him in the courtroom at Seminole Criminal Justice Center in Sanford, Florida, sat his elderly parents, Gladys and Robert, holding hands.

On the opposite side of the courtroom, the victim’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, sitting with her ex-husband, Tracy Martin, sometimes averted her gaze as images of her son’s dead body appeared on the courtroom screen.

Jurors sat still and listened intently, only a couple of them taking occasional notes. They showed no emotion, though one began stroking her hair in a soothing motion when the corpse photographs flashed up. Another leaned forward at that point to rummage in her bag for a mint.

De la Rionda resorted at times to sarcasm to ridicule the defense’s claim that Zimmerman acted in self-defense after Martin punched him in the nose, wrestled him on the ground and pounded his head on the concrete street. “Poor defendant, poor George Zimmerman, he just kind of took it. He never did anything,” said de la Rionda, putting on a semi-whining voice as if mimicking the defense’s claim that the accused was physically out of condition and incapable of having beaten up Martin.

“One of them is a guy who’s had over 18 months Mixed Martial Arts fighting [training], but of course he’s just a pudgy, overweight man,” de la Rionda snarked. “Do you believe he just assumed something but he kind of overreacted a little bit but it wasn’t really his fault?” he asked jurors.

Combing through some of the witness evidence that has been presented, he focused first on that of Rachel Jeantel, 19, who was chatting with Martin by cellphone when the incident occurred and testified that she heard her friend ask Zimmerman, “Why are you following me?” before the line went dead.

Aspects of Jeantel’s evidence were called into question by the defense during the trial, and her time on the witness stand proved troublesome for the state, which was said to have considered her its star witness. She was prone to truculence and street slang. In a possibly controversial choice of words, de la Rionda appeared in his closing speech to suggest that maybe her race—she is of Haitian descent—could also have played into the defense’s negative view of her.

“I had a dream … that today a witness would be judged not on the color of her personality but on the content of her testimony,” he said, invoking Martin Luther King Jr.

“How did he [Martin] see this gun? Or is it just another lie.”

King’s son, Martin Luther King III, was among civil-rights leaders who poured into Sanford after the February 26, 2012, shooting of Martin to call for Zimmerman to be put on trial. The initial decision not to charge him, based on his claim that he acted in self-defense and in fear for his life, prompted a national outcry that led to Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointing a special prosecutor to re-examine the case.

De la Rionda also produced the Kel-Tec 9mm semiautomatic pistol that fired the fatal bullet, waving it in the air as he questioned Zimmerman’s claim that Martin had attempted to grab it from his waistband that night, and that that was why he drew it first and shot.

The night was dark and rainy, said de la Ronda. “How did he [Martin] see this gun? Or is it just another lie that he [Zimmerman] tells?”

Citing one witness, Jayne Surdyka, who testified during the trial that she saw “the bigger man” —Zimmerman—on top of Martin as the two men fought on the ground outside her home, the prosecutor said that injuries on the victim’s body bore out her evidence.

“His body speaks to you and even in death. It proves to you that this defendant is lying about what happened,” he said.

“Trayvon Martin unfortunately can’t come into this courtroom and tell you how he’s feeling and that’s because of the actions of one man. The defendant.”

Zimmerman used law enforcement language in his first interview with police after the shooting, such as referring to the dead teenager as "the suspect" and talking about how he "unholstered my weapon" and shot the boy "in the torso."

"That night, he decided he was going to be what he wanted to be: a police officer," said the prosecutor.

Martin was on his way to his father’s house in the same gated community where Zimmerman lived. If Zimmerman felt suspicious enough to follow him, according to the prosecution, he could have simply challenged him verbally, but did not. “Why? Because he’s got a gun, he has the equalizer, he’s gonna take care of it, he’s a wannabe cop,” said de la Rionda.

The court was again played video of Zimmerman’s first interview with Sanford police after the incident, which de la Rionda said proved that he had exaggerated, lied, and changed his story several times. In the police interview, Zimmerman said that Martin had run from him—which prosecutors say proves that the teenager was scared and being pursued; in a subsequent Fox television interview, he described it less damningly as the boy having skipped.

“Oh, he’s just skipping away, tra-la-la-la-la” de la Rionda, skipping demonstratively across the courtroom waving his arms.

Later in his two-hour closing speech, the prosecutor turned to the human mannequin that colleague John Guy and defense co-counsel Don West had on Wednesday straddled on the courtroom floor to present opposing re-enactments of how the fatal fight played out.

“I guess I might as well do what everybody else has,” sighed de la Rionda, pressing the doll to the floor once more for a demonstration of his own.

Having followed Zimmerman while describing him under his breath as a “fucking punk” and an “asshole”—epithets that were captured on the call he made to a police despatcher while he walked—Zimmerman had demonstrated “ill will and hatred”, standards required for a second-degree murder conviction, the prosecutor asserted.

"He was verbalizing what he was thinking...In his mind he'd already assumed certain things; that Trayvon Martin was a 'fucking punk' and he was an 'asshole' and he wasn't going to get away this time," said de la Rionda.

He told the jury: “There’s only two people who really know what happened out there and he made sure that other person couldn’t come to this courtroom and tell you what happened. He, the defendant, silenced Trayvon Martin, but I would suggest to you that even in silence, his body provides evidence as to this defendant’s guilt.”