Zimmerman Trial: Prosecution Scores

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (R) demonstrates a scenario while questioning Chris Serino (Joe Burbank/Getty Images)

(The Root) — If you're keeping score in the second-degree-murder trial of George Zimmerman, mark Tuesday's court proceedings as a narrow victory for the prosecution.

The exercise has no bearing on Zimmerman's fate for fatally shooting Florida teen Trayvon Martin, of course. But after a few days of arguments in which defense attorneys neutralized the state's witnesses, prosecutors extracted key testimony that the neighborhood-watch volunteer profiled and followed the 17-year-old with "ill will and spite" — an element required for a conviction under Florida law.

Zimmerman, 29, claims he was attacked by Trayvon, who was unarmed, and shot him in self-defense.

Much of the critical testimony came from Chris Serino, the lead Sanford, Fla., police investigator of the shooting. Serino supported the prosecutor's suggestion that Zimmerman profiled Trayvon as a criminal when he described the teen as a "[expletive] punk" to a police dispatcher. Zimmerman also said "these assholes, they always get away."

Assistant State Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda played a recording of Zimmerman's comments from his phone call to the dispatcher in which he reported Trayvon as "suspicious" while walking through a subdivision in Sanford.

"If I were to believe that somebody was committing a crime," de la Rionda said to Serino, "could that not be profiling that person?"


"It could be construed as such," Serino said.

Serino said he found nothing suspicious in Trayvon's behavior that night. Asked by de la Rionda about Zimmerman's use of "[expletive] punk" to refer to Trayvon, Serino replied: "That is ill will and spite."


To obtain a conviction for second-degree murder, the prosecution must prove Zimmerman acted with ill will, hatred, a depraved mind, malice or evil intent toward Trayvon.

Still, Zimmerman's attorneys continued to skillfully raise doubts about the state's case on Tuesday. They have been especially effective at turning the testimony of state witnesses to their advantage during cross-examination.


They did so with Serino, as when defense attorney Mark O'Mara got the officer to concede that he'd found no "major" inconsistencies in the statements Zimmerman gave to police. That cuts hard against the prosecution's chief strategy to highlight holes in Zimmerman's account.

Serino resisted an effort by O'Mara to suggest that Trayvon was behaving suspiciously when first spotted by Zimmerman. Asked if he would have approached and questioned Trayvon for "standing in the rain, at night" and looking into a house — as Zimmerman claims — Serino said, "No."


Other testimony more clearly aided both sides. Jacksonville, Fla., medical examiner Valerie Rao testified for the state that Zimmerman's injuries were "not life-threatening" and "insignificant." She said his wounds, from the broken nose to a pair of cuts on the back of his head, could have been caused by about three blows — not the 25 to 30 that Zimmerman has said he took from Trayvon.

O'Mara, in his cross-examination, succeeded in backing Rao off her initial testimony that Zimmerman's injuries could well have come from a single blow. Implying that Rao might be biased in favor of the state, O'Mara got her to concede that she got her current position due to a recommendation from Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, who brought the second-degree murder case against Zimmerman.


O'Mara also noted that the severity of Zimmerman's injuries is "irrelevant" to his self-defense claim, under state law.

Meanwhile, the prosecution filed a separate motion asking the judge to conduct an inquiry into a photo of defense attorney Don West's family posted on Instagram that appeared to mock the state's star witness, Rachel Jeantel.


Last week West squared off against Jeantel, whose demeanor in court and physical appearance caused wide controversy, in an intense cross-examination over two days. The photo shows West and his two daughters eating ice cream cones and was posted by daughter Molly West. The photo caption: "We beat stupidity celebration cones #zimmerman #defense #dadkilledit."

The photo was posted on the same day Jeantel testified and went viral late last week. Molly West's Instagram account appears to have been shut down.  


Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei said in the motion that Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson must ensure that witnesses are treated with respect and not targeted with "inappropriate jokes."

A spokesman for the defense team has apologized for the post and called it "grossly insensitive."


Orlando Sentinel reporter Rene Stutzman, who is covering the trial, tweeted Tuesday that West says his family has received "threats of violence and rape" since the photo was posted.

What to Expect Wednesday

Before testimony resumes at 9 a.m., the judge will hear arguments about the state's effort to bring in testimony and evidence of Zimmerman's criminal-justice studies at Seminole State College. The state also hopes to show documentation that Zimmerman applied for a job as a police officer in suburban Washington, D.C., but was rejected.


Defense attorneys object to introducing the school records, arguing they are irrelevant. 

The state contends Zimmerman's course work illustrates his knowledge of criminal procedure and policing techniques, possibly enough to help him craft his self-defense claim. Prosecutors want to call as a witness a former professor of Zimmerman's who would testify that Zimmerman took a class that taught Florida's Stand your ground self-defense law, in order to contradict the claim he made on national television last year that he hasn't known about the law before the shooting.


Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.

Corey Dade, an award-winning journalist based in Washington, D.C., is a former national correspondent at NPR and political reporter at the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe and other news organizations. Follow him on Twitter.

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