Much of the media is now fixated on the pictures of injuries George Zimmerman sustained on the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
A consensus appears to be building that those photos — of scratches, abrasions and wounds to the back of Zimmerman’s head — bolster, or even prove, Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense. Some news outlets have gone so far as to ask whether second degree murder charges against Zimmerman should be dropped altogether, on the premise that if the Miami teen struck the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman was justified in shooting to kill, under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
But is that what the law says?
Legal experts say no.
In fact, after initial reports on the shooting portrayed Zimmerman as an overly aggressive neighborhood watchman obsessed with black male “suspects,” or even a vigilante, Coffey says, “there is this counter-wave flooding back, saying Zimmerman was hurt so he must be innocent.”
Coffey, a Miami attorney who was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, says the pictures of Zimmerman’s injuries, and the medical examiner’s report showing a small cut on one of Martin’s fingers, prove far less than that.
“What it proves is that [Zimmerman’s] got credible evidence on one of the elements of
Stand Your Ground,’ which is the claim that he was in reasonable fear of serious bodily injury. But that doesn’t answer the question of who stated the fight, or the other critical question: did Zimmerman have to finish the fight by killing Trayvon Martin. Those questions are obviously not addressed by anybody’s photographs.”
And Catherine Crier, a legal analyst and former district court judge in Texas, says the “Stand Your Ground” statute has other provisions that could prove problematic for Zimmerman’s defense.
“There’s an interesting provision right at the end of the statute [that says] you can’t use ‘Stand Your Ground’ if you initially provoke the use of force, unless that person is coming at you with such great force that you really are fearful for your life, and you’ve exhausted every other means of escape other than force,” Crier says. “And you can’t use it unless you withdraw [from the situation], or indicate clearly that you want to withdraw, and that other person continues to use force that could cause serious bodily harm or death.”
“You’re telling me that George Zimmerman — armed — has a gun, and he is terrified that Trayvon Martin is going to get him, and he has really tried to run?” Crier asks. “All you’ve got to do is pull that gun and say, ‘hey, I’m walking away from this.’ Show’s over.”
Zimmerman’s family members have claimed he was returning to his vehicle when Trayvon Martin attacked him. But Sanford Police homicide investigator Chris Serino, in filing a “capias” request recommending a manslaughter charge against Zimmerman, stated in his report that Zimmerman could have avoided the confrontation with Martin by remaining in his vehicle, or by identifying himself to Martin to “allay his concerns.”
In fact, in another case also prosecuted by the office of Duval County State Attorney Angela Corey, the special prosecutor appointed to take over the Trayvon Martin case in March, Marissa Alexander‘s “Stand Your Ground” claim was dismissed by a judge, who ruled that the 31-year-old could have avoided the confrontation with her abusive husband by leaving their home, rather than confronting him and his sons with a gun and firing it over their heads. Alexander was convicted of three counts of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to a mandatory 20 years in prison.
Both Crier and Coffey say Martin, a teenager being pursued for unknown reasons by a stranger in a car, who then got out of that car and began chasing him on foot, can also be reasonably portrayed as having been in fear for his life. In that case, Martin would have had no “duty to flee” his pursuer – a textbook definition of “Stand Your Ground.”
“If in the course of Zimmerman’s pursuit of Trayvon Martin, if he, in effect, creates on the part of Trayvon Martin a reasonable fear of serious bodily injury, Trayvon Martin would be within his rights to use lethal force to save himself,” Coffey said, adding that such lethal force “isn’t limited to guns. It could include using your fists to try to save your life.”
And while the pictures of Zimmerman’s bloody head and scratched face caused a media sensation, Coffey says that doesn’t prove the prosecution has no case, or even a weak one.
“The photographs and the other evidence of Zimmerman’s injuries were not breaking news to the prosecution,” Coffey says. “They were fully aware of that information, and yet reached a conclusion that they could prove second degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. Rushing to judgment that Zimmerman is innocent is equally as wrong as rushing to judgment that he is guilty.”
In releasing some of the “discovery” in the case to the media, prosecutors in the office of State Attorney Angela Corey held some things back. We have, for instance, not seen transcripts of video of the interviews between Zimmerman and Sanford police. We have not seen video of any reenactments that were done at the crime scene.
Indeed, even Zimmerman’s attorney has thrown up caution flags. The following note was posted on Zimmerman’s legal defense website on Monday:
…The State Attorney’s Office has made much of the evidence in the George Zimmerman case public record on Thursday, May 17, 2012. Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, has stressed that people should not make up their minds about this case based upon the partial evidence available. The O’Mara Law Group has estimated that only about half of the discovery has been made available by the state so far. The remainder of the discovery is currently being scrutinized, and certain information is being properly redacted — especially information that puts witnesses in potential danger or risks unnecessarily inflaming the cultural tensions that surround this case. We agree
The posting indicates that it may be “several weeks” before Zimmerman’s defense team receives all of the information from prosecutors, and they note that the public — and the media — may never see the remaining evidence at all.
And the posting continues:
Because of the interest in this case, it is understood that there will be wide public examination of the evidence. The O’Mara Law group stresses that while the George Zimmerman case will be explored deeply in the media and by the public, the only proper place to determine the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman is in court, and indeed only the jury will have all the evidence required to make such a determination.
Meanwhile, prosecutor Bernie De La Rionda hinted, at Zimmerman’s bond hearing, that Zimmerman’s account of the shooting to police might have varied. If that is the case, Coffey said it could be a key piece of evidence at trial.
“If he’s disbelieved about relevant aspects of his account of self-defense, any such false testimony could contribute to a conviction for murder,” Coffey says. “If a defendant is lying about an incident, those lies can be some of the strongest proof of guilt.”
And Coffey believes Zimmerman would almost certainly have to take the stand at a full-blown trial.
If that happens, “the most critical information in the trial could be his believability,” Coffey says. “This defendant is asserting self-defense and it would be very difficult to assert self-defense without taking the stand to explain how it happened. All the more difficult if the police are holding in their hands contradictory accounts.”
But the bottom line, Coffey says, is that we simply don’t know how a court case against Zimmerman would transpire.
“It’s premature to assume we know how this trial is going to turn out.”
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