SANFORD, Fla. — It began with fragments.
A hoodie. A neighborhood watchman. A teenage boy.
It ends with fragments.
A “yelp.” Two blurred figures in the dark. A “gunpowder tattoo.”
The compulsively parsed, gargantuanly viewed, passionately felt trial that spooled out for three weeks in Courtroom 5D here answered a question of guilt or innocence with a question: Will we ever know exactly what happened that night in The Retreat at Twin Lakes? Neither the defense nor the prosecution pretended to know for sure. In this era of omnipresent cameras, neither could show a video of the crime; neither could produce a witness who saw all and told all.
What they revealed over days of often-scintillating testimony and in vigorous closing arguments Thursday and Friday was a mosaic. All of those fragments got glued together, just enough — they hoped — to sway the jury of six women who began deliberating Friday on the second-degree murder and manslaughter charges against George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara has called it the “bizarro trial,” an upside-down affair. And it launched bizarrely, with a dud of a joke told by another defense attorney, Don West: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? Good, you’re on the jury.”
Prosecution witnesses, at times, seemed like defense witnesses. Defense witnesses, at times, seemed like prosecution witnesses. The prosecution offered Chris Serino, a gruff, gravel-voiced Sanford police officer with a buzz cut, but he ended up telling jurors that he believed Zimmerman’s self-defense version of the shooting. The defense called Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, who ended up rebutting the testimony of Serino and another police investigator who said he told them that the voice crying for help in the background of a 911 call was not his son’s.
“Who started this?” prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda asked jurors. “Who followed whom?”
De la Rionda, in a style that sometimes seemed more reminiscent of a defense attorney sowing doubt than a prosecutor emboldened by an air of certainty, peppered jurors with questions. “How does he get the gun out?” de la Rionda asked after demonstrating how Zimmerman would have had difficulty reaching behind his back for his holstered gun if Martin was on top of him. “How did the victim see that in the darkness?” the prosecutor asked about the gun.
De la Rionda’s questions gave an opening to O’Mara. “They’re supposed to use words like certainty, definite, beyond a reasonable doubt, no other explanation,” O’Mara told jurors Friday. “What aren’t good words? Maybe, what if, I hope so, you figure it out, could’ve been.” Don’t “connect dots,” he urged jurors, don’t “fill in blanks.”
Prosecutor John Guy, a square-jawed assistant state attorney whom some commentators have nicknamed “McDreamy,” attempted to mute O’Mara’s attack. But he threw out questions, too, repeating, “Why did he lie?” in reference to inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s account. Paramount among those were Zimmerman’s claim that he spread Martin’s arms — the teen was found with his hands under his body — and the neighborhood watch volunteer’s statement in a Fox News interview that he did not know about Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which gives extensive latitude to citizens who feel threatened. Professors testified that Zimmerman had studied the law. (Even though questions were asked about the law, Zimmerman’s attorneys are not mounting a stand-your-ground defense.) Guy mocked the defense’s suggestion that Zimmerman was not physically fit enough to subdue Martin, calling Zimmerman the “Stay Puft Man,” a reference to a character in the movie “Ghostbusters.”
The prosecution relied heavily on a brash and sassy 19-year-old Miami high schooler named Rachel Jeantel, who had lied about her age and falsely claimed to have skipped Martin’s memorial service because she was in the hospital.
Like much in the trial, her testimony became a cultural touchstone outside the courtroom and a source of dispute inside it. She said that she was on a cellphone with Martin in the moments before he died and that he said a “creepy-ass cracker” was following him, supporting the prosecution’s portrayal of Zimmerman as the aggressor. Might she have neglected to “code switch,” some commentators mused, referring to the difficulty of translating the vernacular of African American youth into a courtroom setting.
Jurors, by the time they began deliberating Friday afternoon, had heard the tape of Zimmerman’s call to a non-emergency police number on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, over and over. Attorneys pounded the bare outlines of that night into their minds: Zimmerman got out of his Honda Ridgeline, he muttered under his breath about “f---ing punks” and “a--holes” that “always get away.” What they were left to sort out is Zimmerman’s claim in police interviews that he was afraid of the figure in the “hoodie” sweatshirt, and de la Rionda’s skeptical question: “If he’s really in fear, why does he get out of the car?”
Jurors, who had requested a list of all exhibits, recessed Friday evening after deliberating for more than three hours and will resume their work Saturday morning.
The run-up to the trial was steeped in unease about race relations in America, with rage among many civil rights leaders about the initial decision of Sanford police not to charge Zimmerman, who has a white father and a Hispanic mother. And although race was not the focal point of the trial, both sides felt compelled to touch upon it during their closing arguments. O’Mara nudged jurors to consider that — even though the suspects in previous burglaries in Zimmerman’s neighborhood had been young black males — the defendant never said anything like “I hate these young black males” in calls to police. And Guy, the assistant state attorney, insisted that this case “is not about race.”
The long expanse of grass outside the Seminole County Courthouse has been all but empty throughout the trial, the crowds that massed in this city north of Orlando to demand an arrest absent now that the case was being tried. But on Friday, a new sight appeared: dozens of demonstrators.