SANFORD, Fla.—One of the most anticipated murder trials in recent memory began with a torrent of profanity from the prosecution and a knock-knock joke from the defense.
The state of Florida’s case against George Zimmerman began on Monday with the expected debate about whether the man who shot and fatally wounded 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012 committed murder or acted in self-defense. What was not expected was a bit of forced humor, which fell jarringly flat.
The lead defense attorney, Don West, declared early in his remarks that “sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying” and then ventured a joke. He confessed it was “a little bit weird” to do so and asked the jury to avoid holding the joke against the defendant.
Then he went ahead.
“Knock, knock,” West said, stunning both the jury and the assembled onlookers.
“Who’s there?” he answered himself.
“George Zimmerman who?”
“All right. Good. You're on the jury.”
There was barely a reaction.
“Nothing?” West said, in genuine surprise.
This was met with some nervous laughter.
It was a deeply strange way to open a trial about a killing that has rattled and vexed an entire nation. The death of Martin, on his way home from buying candy at a local convenience store, has touched a national third rail, launching arguments and protests about race, gun laws and civil rights.
Later, after a lunch recess, West apologized. “I really thought it was funny,” he said. “Sorry if I offended anyone.”
A clunky start struggled to find footing as West slogged through a long trail of evidence that lasted more than two-and-a-half hours. The argument meandered, and West admitted as much.
“I don’t know if you follow what I mean,” he told the jury at one point.
West’s statement stood in stark contrast to that of state’s attorney John Guy, who launched immediately into a flurry of storytelling that repeated Zimmerman’s muttered cusswords over and over again.
"'F---ing punks,'" Guy stated right away, quoting Zimmerman in his call to a police dispatcher in the moments before his confrontation with Martin. “'These a--holes, they always get away.' Those were words in that grown man’s mouth.”
Guy tried to keep the emotion level raised throughout his opening, dipping into a narrative that seemed to come straight from a crime drama.
“As the smoke and the smell of that fatal gunshot rose into a rainy Sanford night,” Guy said, “Trayvon lay facedown in wet grass, laboring through his final breaths on planet Earth.”
Guy went on to declare that Zimmerman “followed and murdered an unarmed teenager.” He also promised the jury, “The truth is going to come directly from his month. Hateful words. Lies he told to police.”
He accused Zimmerman of “going after” Martin: “This defendant, riding around in his car, not with candy, not with fruit juice, but with 9 mm semi-automatic weapon.” Thirty minutes of crisp accusations, ushered along with voice modulation and the occasional gesture toward the stone-faced Zimmerman, ended with this:
“We are confident at the end of this trial you will know in your head, heart and stomach that George Zimmerman didn’t shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him because he wanted to.”
Guy’s theatrics were offset by West’s scientific approach. One issue in this trial is Zimmerman’s mindset, and whether he was instigating or afraid. Second-degree murder, as defined in Florida, is “the unlawful killing of a human being, when perpetrated by any act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual.”
Part of the defense’s goal is to show Zimmerman as calm and rational, motivated by protecting himself and the gated community for which he served as a neighborhood watch “liaison.” While Guy presented the image of Zimmerman as determined to pursue Martin even though the minor was unarmed, West tried through painstaking detail to show it was Zimmerman who was in trouble, saying he noticed an unknown teenager approaching him, and took no aggressive steps in the minutes between seeing Martin in the dark and pulling the trigger.
“My focus is on the detail,” West told the jury. “And if I have to sacrifice passion, it’s not because I don’t care. Even if it’s boring or somewhat technical, I want to give you the information.”
And so he went, explaining that Zimmerman obtained a gun because of a neighbor’s unruly dog and learned from an air marshal friend how to use it correctly. “He was licensed and responsible,” West said. “He did have the gun, and thank god.”
Throughout the two-and-a-half hours he spoke, West returned often to Zimmerman’s state of mind.
“George Zimmerman cooperated fully,” West said. “He answered all the questions as many times as they wanted, as many days as they wanted.” This, he added, despite “tremendous blows to his face and to his head.”
Zimmerman portrayed little emotion throughout the day. He stared straight ahead, stone-faced through Guy’s remarks and even appeared to be on the verge of dozing off during West’s. He hardly reacted to anything, at any point.
Martin’s mother, however, did react. Sybrina Fulton, after becoming emotional during a brief statement before the trial began, left the courtroom before the 911 call of the gunshot that ended her son’s life. She did not return until after the lunch recess.
West’s argument picked up momentum after the break, especially when he said Martin’s father told an investigator that it was not his son’s voice screaming on the 911 call. That will be a major point of contention, as much will ride on who the jury believes was crying for help in the seconds before Martin was shot.
Also at issue is whether Martin was on top of Zimmerman when the fatal shot was fired. West mentioned several pieces of evidence in his opening remarks—including the can of iced tea found on Martin after the shooting—to suggest Zimmerman was in a prone position. The lack of blood on Martin’s hands, noted in the state’s attorney’s remarks, was explained by the wet conditions and perhaps a medical examiner’s mistakes. As for the absence of Martin’s DNA? West said that “doesn’t necessarily prove anything.” West even closed by countering the prosecution’s statement that Martin was unarmed.
“What the evidence will show you,” West said, “is that’s not true. Mr. Martin armed himself with the concrete sidewalk. That is a deadly weapon.”
It left the jury with at least the idea that Martin, not Zimmerman, was the aggressor. And it was a sure signal that in such a sobering and troubling trial, there will be no more canned jokes.