Zimmerman case: Judge allows manslaughter charge to be considered

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda argued that George Zimmerman assumed Trayvon Martin was a criminal upon seeing him.

He wanted a badge. And he wanted desperately for the people wearing badges to like him, to respect him. He wanted to be one of them.

Such was the needy portrait of George Zimmerman painted by a state prosecutor Thursday in closing arguments of a trial that has become a national obsession during three weeks of televised and live-streamed testimony.

Zimmerman never became a policeman, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda told jurors, but on the night he shot an unarmed teenager he was every bit the “wanna­be cop,” surveying his neighborhood with a mind muddied by “incorrect assumptions.” He profiled Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American who Zimmerman killed on a rainy night in February 2012, as a criminal, as a threat, de la Rionda said.

But Zimmerman, the aspiring lawman, was the dangerous one, the prosecutor said. To illustrate his point, the prosecutor displayed two photos side by side. One showed the Kel-Tec 9mm handgun that Zimmerman was carrying. The other showed what Martin was carrying: a can of Arizona fruit drink.

At times, de la Rionda’s voiced cracked with emotion and he had to pause to compose himself.

Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, lifted her glasses off her nose and wiped tears from her eyes in the second row as de la Rionda pleaded with jurors. Across the aisle, the defendant’s mother, Gladys Zimmerman, leaned into the shoulder of his father, Robert Zimmerman Sr.

The defense will get its chance to rebut the portrait during its closing arguments on Friday, and jury deliberations could begin Friday as well.

Zimmerman, whose mother is Hispanic and whose father is white, is claiming self-defense. He says Martin attacked him after he got out of his vehicle to look for a street name while calling a police non-emergency line. Zimmerman did not testify, but de la Rionda sought to sway jurors by pointing out possible inconsistencies or seemingly illogical statements that the defendant made in taped conversations with police investigators and during a nationally televised interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News.

“If he’s really in fear, why does he get out of the car?” de la Rionda asked the six-woman jury and three alternates. “Who started this? Who followed whom?”

De la Rionda, his voice dripping with sarcasm, asserted that it makes little sense that Zimmerman would be looking for a street name: There are only three streets in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the community where the shooting took place. The prosecutor scoffed at testimony by a gym owner who testified for the defense that Zimmerman was “soft,” an assertion critical to the defense claim that Martin overpowered him.

Zimmerman, who has gained considerable weight since the shooting, was a fit-looking 5-foot-7 and 204 pounds the night he shot Martin, who was a slender 5-foot-8 and 158 pounds, de la Rionda told jurors.

“Oh, but of course, he’s just a pudgy, overweight man,” de la Rionda said sarcastically of Zimmerman. And de la Rionda suggested it would have been impossible for Zimmerman to reach the gun he had holstered behind his back if, as he claimed, Martin was straddling him and pounding his head into a concrete walkway.

Jurors will consider charges of second-degree murder — which requires prosecutors to prove Zimmerman had a “depraved mind” and “ill intent” — and the lesser offense of manslaughter. But Judge Debra Nelson blocked a prosecution attempt to add the option of a third-degree murder charge based on the claim that Zimmerman committed child abuse since Martin was a minor.

On Friday, it will be the defense’s turn. At a break in the prosecution’s closing argument, Don West, the combative Zimmerman attorney, walked over to the defendant’s father and gave him a reassuring pat on the shoulder.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
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