Nelson ruled that jurors would not be allowed to see text messages found on Martin’s cellphone about fighting and guns because they could not be authenticated. “Why you always fighting?” a message from one of Martin’s friends said, according to a defense expert. West had been eager to introduce the texts to further the defense claim that Martin was the aggressor in the fight and that Zimmerman — whom a gym owner described as “soft” and unathletic — was overpowered by the tall and slender teenager.
O’Mara and West, a former rock-and-roll DJ with a shaved head and an imposing courtroom presence, succeeded in turning many of the state’s key witnesses into assets for the defense. They got John Good, a neighbor, to testify that he saw a figure in dark clothes (Martin’s hoodie was dark) straddling another person and doing a mixed-martial-arts-style “ground and pound” while “raining down blows.” They also got lead police investigator Chris Serino to testify that he believed Zimmerman’s self-defense account.
Local prosecutors had not pursued the case, but Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) appointed a special prosecutor, naming State Attorney Angela Corey of Jacksonville, Fla., to oversee it. Corey’s assistants, who argued the case, often seemed to struggle with their own witnesses. Bernie de la Rionda, a veteran prosecutor with a booming voice and a penchant for making fun of his own baldness, tangled repeatedly with Serino. And he struggled with Shiping Bao, a medical examiner and key witness, who testified that Martin might have lived for up to 10 minutes after being shot.
The timing was important because Zimmerman had told police investigators that he spread Martin’s arms after the shooting to check for weapons, but the teen was found with his arms under his body. Bao’s assertion allowed the defense to suggest that Martin might have moved his hands in the moments before his death.
In their best moments, prosecutors were able to highlight inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s accounts of the shooting and build a narrative about him as “a wannabe cop” who shot Martin “because he wanted to, not because he needed to.” They had much to work with — police conducted several taped interviews with Zimmerman and recorded a reenactment — all without Zimmerman requesting an attorney. Prosecutor John Guy said it would have been a “physical impossibility” for Zimmerman to have reached behind his back for his concealed and holstered Kel-Tec 9mm handgun if he had been lying on the ground with Martin on top of him.
Vincent di Maio, a distinguished silver-haired forensic expert who entered the courtroom with a Panama hat in hand, spoke at length about the gunpowder tattoo that formed on Martin’s skin as the bullet entered Martin’s body. The appearance of the tattoo, di Maio testified, was unshakable proof of the defense claim that Martin was leaning over Zimmerman with his sweatshirt failing away from his chest when the shot was fired.
Even before the verdict was delivered, O’Mara might have summed it up best, saying two lives were changed forever on that rainy night in the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The question that lingered is whether America was changed, too.