George Zimmerman Is Off to a Rough Start, Legal Experts Say
The state is coming on strong against the accused murderer—and his lawyer opened with a knock-knock joke.
Only two days into George Zimmerman’s murder trial, the accused murderer’s legal team may have already dug itself into a hole.
On Tuesday the all-female jury was presented with—among other things—graphic photos of a dead Trayvon Martin, lying face up and face down on the grass; close-up shots of his gunshot wounds; and images of the gun that Zimmerman, a 29-year-old former neighborhood-watch captain, used to shoot the unarmed black teenager.
Even more dramatic were Monday’s highly charged opening statements, which began with the phrase “fucking punks,” a profanity prosecutor John Guy said Zimmerman rattled off minutes before the deadly confrontation on February 26, 2012. It was a strong start for the state—made even stronger by the defense's unusual opening statement, which began with a knock-knock joke about the difficulty of picking a jury.
"Knock, knock," said defense attorney Don West. "'Who's there?' 'George Zimmerman.' 'George Zimmerman, who?' 'Alright, good, you are on the jury.'"
The joke was meant to make the point that Zimmerman has been unfairly portrayed in the media. But most legal analysts think it was a bad idea. “It’s always risky to use a joke,” says Miami defense lawyer Eduardo X. Pereira. “It’s hard to tell the reaction you will get.”
West later apologized for the bit. But Florida criminal-defense attorney Randy McClean says the jurors might have taken it personally. “I viewed it as insulting, as if the jury wasn’t well-informed of current events,” McClean says. “I think it could have been taken as a mild insult.”
Will it stick in the jurors’ mind? Jacksonville defense attorney Cynthia Veintemillas doesn’t think so. “That statement was probably 1 percent of the entire case,” she says. “The evidence will take a couple of weeks, and then closing arguments, and by the end you won’t remember the knock-knock joke.”
More broadly, the sensational trial has raised a debate across the country about racial profiling and vigilantism, and framing the conversation around those ideas doesn’t bode well for Zimmerman. Prosecutors have portrayed the defendant, whose mother is Hispanic and whose father is white, as a hard-charging vigilante whose goal was to “rid his neighborhood of anyone who did not belong.”
Zimmerman was tired of “fucking punks” breaking the law and getting away with it, said Guy. “Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons—because he wanted to," he said.
Florida criminal defense attorney Eric Matheny believes the prosecution’s opening statements were persuasive. “I think the prosecution has such a strong command of the courtroom,” he says. Guy, he says, was able to establish that Zimmerman was a paranoid cop wannabe. “Zimmerman should be very scared right now,” he says.
Not so quick, says McClean, who believes that the prosecutor has to back up his claims with facts. “It’s their burden to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt,” he says. “Being so impassioned raises the bar, and the state really has to meet their burden. If they don’t, the jury will talk about it—and that can be a problem.”
During his opening statements, West said Zimmerman killed Martin in self-defense after the teen sucker-punched him in the face and pounded his head on concrete. It was Trayvon who confronted Zimmerman, not the other way around, West said.
But West stepped into risky territory when he disagreed with the prosecution's contention that Martin was unarmed. "Travyon Martin armed himself with the concrete sidewalk and used it to smash George Zimmerman’s head," he said. "No different than if he picked up a brick or smashed his head against a wall. That is a deadly weapon."
McClean believes West may have overreached with the statement. “No one is going to believe the sidewalk is a weapon,” he says. However, he adds, the provocative statement may have worked on a deeper level by evoking the idea that Zimmerman was in fear for his life. “Sometimes the strategy is to provide thought and draw attention to the issue by saying the sidewalk is the weapon,” McClean says. “You want catchphrases that will be memorable to the jury when they go back and deliberate.”
During the trial, jurors also heard a witness call 911 call that captured screams in the background from the struggle between Martin and Zimmerman. Martin’s family said the yells for help were from their son, while Zimmerman’s family said they were from their son. The judge ruled earlier that prosecutors could not bring in an audio expert to testify that the bellows were from Martin because the method is unproven.
The tape is important for the defense because it proves to the jury that there was a fight. “I think it is relevant to show the commotion,” says Veintemillas. “They’ll argue whose client it is, but at the end of the day it showed there was a fight. The defense doesn’t have to prove it was Zimmerman or Martin. It’s the state that has to prove it.” But, she says, “I think the 911 won’t be the deal breaker if you can’t prove who it is.”
“The jury will have a tough time with that,” concedes Matheny, who predicts Zimmerman will be found guilty of the lesser charge of aggravated manslaughter. “No one can say for sure who it is.”
What may clear things up for the jury, says McClean, is if Zimmerman takes the stand. “There are only two people in the world who know what happened, and only one can tell the story,” he says. “If Zimmerman takes the stand, what he says is probably going to be more important than all of the evidence combined. If the jury believes him, he could very well be acquitted. If he does take the stand, it’s with great risk. He has to convince six ladies he acted in self-defense, and if he falls short, he’s in big trouble.”
Whatever happens, Zimmerman will probably suffer the same fate as Florida mom Casey Anthony, says Matheny. “He’s a marked man,” he says. “He might as well leave the country. He is one person I wouldn’t trade places with.”