Trayvon Shooter George Zimmerman’s Iffy Defense

The neighborhood-watch volunteer said he was scared for his life. But, writes Aram Roston, newly released documents show he seemed anything but.

George Zimmerman’s decision to get out of his car and follow 17-year old Trayvon Martin on a dark rainy evening in Florida was “inconsistent” with his claim that he was scared of the unarmed African-American teenager he later shot and killed, according to an arrest request written by the Sanford police investigator initially assigned to the case.

The full two-page request to arrest the 28-year-old Zimmerman, dated March 13, was released by the special prosecutor’s office on Tuesday as part of the discovery process in the second-degree murder case. Previously, the document had been heavily redacted.

The killing of Trayvon Martin in February caused a national outcry because Zimmerman, who is white, wasn’t initially arrested or charged. Local prosecutors said the shooting was justified under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground self-defense law. But in April, following an intense outcry, a special prosecutor charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

The release of the document Tuesday opens a window on the way police in Sanford saw Zimmerman’s self-defense claims. In the document, police investigator Christopher Serino lays out what he believed is the probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. The charge, he wrote back then, would be manslaughter.

“Zimmerman exited his vehicle, in spite of his earlier admission to investigators that he was afraid of Martin,” according to Serino’s report, “and followed Martin in an effort to maintain surveillance of him ...”

Serino, who interviewed Zimmerman in the days immediately after the incident, questioned whether Zimmerman, a volunteer on the neighborhood watch who was carrying a concealed 9mm firearm, was as scared as he told police he was. “His actions are inconsistent with those of a person who has stated he was in fear of another subject,” Serino wrote.

Zimmerman had been told by a police dispatcher that “we don’t need you” to follow Martin.

Zimmerman has said that after he got out of his car, Martin approached him in the darkness, challenged him, and then hit him. In the document released Tuesday, Serino wrote that Zimmerman “had at least two opportunities to speak with Trayvon Benjamin Martin in order to defuse the circumstances.”

Also on Tuesday, the Sanford Police Department announced that Serino was leaving his duties and had “voluntarily requested a reassignment to patrol division.”Sanford police spokesman Sgt. David Morgenstern says it “was just coincidence” that it happened the same day that Serino’s document on probable cause was released. He said Serino had requested the transfer to the patrol division because “he wants to go work the night shift,” and he said it was “not at all” punitive.

At the heart of the Zimmerman legal case there is one important agreement: both Zimmerman and the prosecutors have said that after the neighborhood-watch volunteer got out of his car, there was a fight before Zimmerman fired the fatal round. The legal argument now is whether it was second-degree murder or self defense when he pulled the trigger.

Professor Tamara Lave, who teaches criminal law at University of Miami School of Law, says one key will be gauging Zimmerman’s state of mind precisely when he followed Martin. That’s because according to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, one can only use deadly force if one “reasonably believes” it’s necessary to prevent “death or great bodily harm. In this type of situation,” Lave says, “state of mind is one of the essential elements.”

Zimmerman, she says, has tried to portray himself as the victim in the encounter with Martin. But according to the newly released document, she says, “the police seem to believe he may be an assailant.”

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Zimmerman is now in Seminole County Detention Center. His $150,000 bond was revoked a month ago because of a judge’s concerns that Zimmerman and his wife had been deceptive over their finances. Another hearing is scheduled for Friday, and Zimmerman’s defense lawyer argued, in a motion filed last week, that his client has voluntarily surrendered twice and deserves to be released again on bond.