SANFORD, Fla. — In a murder case of chain reactions, the chief prosecutor, Bernie de la Rionda, began with the very first link when he delivered closing statements in the George Zimmerman trial Thursday.
Trayvon Martin, a black, unarmed teenager carrying nothing but snacks, died of a gunshot to the heart for one reason, he said: Zimmerman saw himself as a cop and Martin as a hoodie-clad criminal.
“He went over the line,” de la Rionda told the jury. “He assumed things that weren’t true and, instead of waiting for the police to come and do their job, he did not. He, the defendant, wanted to make sure that Trayvon Martin didn’t get out of the neighborhood.”
“In this defendant’s mind, he automatically assumed that Trayvon Martin was a criminal,” de la Rionda added. “And that’s why we’re here.”
Zimmerman, 29, a neighborhood watch volunteer who said he shot Martin in self-defense, is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26, 2012, death of Martin, who was 17. If convicted, he could face life in prison. On Thursday, the judge, Debra S. Nelson, said the jury would also be able to consider manslaughter as a lesser charge. This charge is typically included in Florida murder cases if either side requests it. Manslaughter with a firearm carries a sentence of up to 30 years in prison.
On Friday, the defense will present its closing statement, followed by a one-hour rebuttal by the prosecution. The case will then go to the sequestered jury of six women, five white and one Hispanic, for deliberations.
The shooting, and the six-week delay in Zimmerman’s arrest, provoked outrage from black people here and elsewhere, as civil rights leaders denounced what they viewed as a justice system historically uncaring of the rights of African-Americans.
In his two-hour closing statement in the Seminole County courthouse, de la Rionda wielded Zimmerman’s own words against him, parsing his statements to the police for discrepancies and inconsistencies. Over and over, he played recordings of Zimmerman’s account for the jury, stopping to point out what he called exaggerations and lies.
In those statements, Zimmerman said that Martin had knocked him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly against the pavement. Fearing for his life, afraid that Martin was reaching for his gun, he shot him.
But prosecutors said that Zimmerman profiled Martin as he was headed home in the rain to the house where he was a guest. Zimmerman got out of the car with a gun legally concealed in his waistband and chased him so he would not get away. He was the aggressor in the fight, they said.
Contradictions in Zimmerman’s story abound, they said, citing these assertions from the defendant:
How could Martin have grabbed for the gun and not left DNA on it? How could he have even seen that tiny gun in Zimmerman’s waistband in the dark? How could Martin have been punching Zimmerman, covering his mouth and reaching for his gun at the same time? And wouldn’t Zimmerman have suffered more grievous wounds to his head if Martin had slammed it against the pavement 25 times?
“Is he exaggerating what happened?” asked de la Rionda, calling the statements lies, a ploy to pad his self-defense case. But in raising so many questions instead of answering them with evidence, de la Rionda also underscored weaknesses in his own case. There were no eyewitnesses to the shooting, and only one person is alive to tell the story. Dozens of witnesses have testified over the course of the three-week trial, but it is still unclear what happened in the moments leading up to the fight and during the struggle itself.
Prosecutors have a tough burden: They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not shoot in self-defense. Florida has generous self-defense laws that give the benefit of the doubt to a gunman who has a reasonable person’s fear of great bodily harm or imminent death.
Second-degree murder is also a high hurdle. Prosecutors must show Zimmerman murdered Martin that night with a “depraved mind” — that harbored ill-will, hatred or spite.