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Zimmerman Trial: The View From Inside The Courtroom


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We've decided to devote the entire program today to one story: the trial of George Zimmerman. Of course, he's the Florida man who shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin last year. The trial of Mr. Zimmerman on second-degree murder charges is almost over. So we thought this would be a good moment to review some of the key moments in the trial and also some of the important discussions that have emerged in the course of this trial and this story.

Later in the program, we'll be talking about what social media commentators have been saying. We'll talk with two law professors from different parts of the country who've been following the case. But we want to start inside the courtroom with a reporter who spoke to us just as the trial was beginning. We've caught up with her today before the day's proceedings began. Her name is Rene Stutzman. She's been covering the trial for the Orlando Sentinel, and she's with us once again. Welcome back to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

RENE STUTZMAN: I'm glad to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: I want to emphasize again that we're talking to you before today's proceedings began, and I want to focus on, kind of, the trial overall so far. The sense outside of the courtroom, the sense on social media, the sense, kind of, in the chatter is that the prosecution has put on a very weak case. Do you think that that's true?

STUTZMAN: Yeah, I couldn't say it more succinctly. The state started this trial in a weak position, and as it presented its case, its effort to try to show jurors that George Zimmerman is guilty of murder, things just went south. The most important thing I think the state is lacking is evidence of what happened in the moment Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman came face-to-face.

They presented no evidence - and they've concluded their case; they've presented no evidence as to who struck the first blow.

MARTIN: What has been the most compelling testimony or evidence that you have seen from the prosecution side? And then, of course, I'm going to ask you on the other side 'cause the defense is now presenting its case. So what's the most compelling evidence you think the prosecution did present?

STUTZMAN: It would be the young woman Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with Trayvon just seconds before he was shot to death. She's age 19. She was a friend of Trayvon. She had spent much of the day of the shooting on the phone with him. And she testified over a couple of days, and it was a long and punishing cross-examination she underwent. But she stuck with her basic story and it is this: Trayvon told me that someone was following him.

She said she heard Trayvon get away from the man, they lost sight contact, but then boom, there he is again. And she hears Trayvon and this man - would've been George Zimmerman - exchange words. George Zimmerman said something on the order of, what are you doing around here? And Rachel Jeantel said she heard what sounded like a bump. She heard grass sounds.

MARTIN: Rene, let me stop you there 'cause we actually have a clip of her testimony. And here it is.


RACHEL JEANTEL: I started hearing a little bit of Trayvon saying, get off, get off.

DON WEST: OK, let me stop you a second. You heard a grass sound and then you said something. What did you say?

JEANTEL: I was trying to say, Trayvon, Trayvon, what's going on?

WEST: And what did you hear?

JEANTEL: I said Trayvon - I kind of heard Trayvon saying, get off, get off.

MARTIN: You mentioned that she underwent a very grueling cross-examination? What was the point of the cross-examination?

STUTZMAN: The point of the cross-examination was to discredit her. She's lied a couple of times. Once during a sworn statement given to the lead prosecutor in the case, Bernie De La Rionda. She told him that she did not go to Trayvon's funeral or wake because she was in the hospital. She was never in the hospital. That was a lie she told because she wanted to spare Trayvon's mother, and her embarrassment in having to admit that she was too emotional and didn't want to go to the funeral. She also is an extremely uncooperative witness for everybody.

An attorney for the family, for Trayvon's family, Benjamin Crump, sought her out and sought to get a statement from her in March, probably three weeks after the shooting, and she was very reluctant to do that. She tried to hide from that. She tried to convince her mother to help her get out of that. She just didn't want to be involved in this.

So here is someone who was non-cooperative, in general, from the get-go, and didn't want to be involved and here she's dragged into this. And she had to talk about those behaviors and those things on the witness stand.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about George Zimmerman's trial from Rene Stutzman. She's been reporting on it for the Orlando Sentinel. So now let's talk about the defense. What was the most compelling evidence that the defense has put on so far, or the most compelling challenge to the prosecution's case?

STUTZMAN: It would be a witness named John Good, G-O-O-D, John Good. And, sadly enough, he was a state witness, somebody the state called to try to shore up its case. John Good lived very close to where the fight happened and where Trayvon was shot, and he is the only eyewitness to what happened. He didn't see it start. He didn't see it end. He said he saw eight to 10 seconds, and here's what he described: I heard a fight. I stepped out onto my patio, I saw two figures fighting. I saw a figure with dark clothes - and Trayvon was wearing dark clothes - on top of a man wearing red or white - and George Zimmerman was wearing a red jacket.

The man in dark clothes was on top, straddling the man on the bottom, and he was throwing down blows or pushing downward on the man on the bottom. I heard cries for help, and I'm not 100 percent sure, but I think it was from the man on the bottom. I told them to stop fighting. They didn't. I told them I was going to call the authorities. I stepped back inside to call the authorities. And as he was doing that, then there was a gunshot and the killing.

MARTIN: We have another clip of John Good's - in this case, he's speaking with defense lawyer Mark O'Mara about what he saw. And I assume this is during the cross-examination because, as you said, this was a prosecution witness. And here he is.


MARK O'MARA: So MMA, to the extent that you're aware of it, and MMA is mixed martial arts.

JOHN GOOD: Correct.

O'MARA: You knew it enough to start giving terminology like ground-and-pound to what you saw, right?

GOOD: That was the first thing that came to my mind, yes.

O'MARA: That the person on top was ground-and-pounding the person on the bottom?

GOOD: That's what it looked like, yes.

MARTIN: And this is compelling because the whole key to the defense is what - that George Zimmerman was in a fight for his life and that it was reasonable for him to defend himself using deadly force. Is that correct?

STUTZMAN: Exactly. And more than reasonable, Florida law allows you to use deadly force, to pull a gun and shoot someone if you have a reasonable fear of imminent death or grave bodily injury. So what John described sounds to me like somebody who might have had that reasonable fear.

MARTIN: What about that judge's role in this? I mean, this is a televised trial. There's obviously a lot of public interest in this case. How has she comported herself so far, and do both sides think that she has been fair and even-handed?

STUTZMAN: She and some attorneys had a meltdown at about 10 p.m. last night. The trial day began at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time yesterday and it ended at 10 p.m. She sent the jury home at 4:30, but there were some issues that she and the attorneys needed to deal with outside their presence.

And they just worked too long, the day ended in a yelling match and she tried to end that, although she raised her voice and her tone - eventually she just stood up and walked out and said, court is in recess, court is in recess. So it ended on a really bad note last night. I am confident that people will have calmer heads. In general, how she treated things, I think people would give her generally good marks.

MARTIN: For being fair?

STUTZMAN: For being fair. She has a reputation for being pro-state. She made a ruling in this case that really surprised me. It involved audio experts. It's a complicated issue and it's whether scientists, using valid science, could identify who was screaming in the background of a 911 call from a neighbor. And her ruling was in favor of the defense.

Her ruling was, I'm not going to let these state experts, who say that they believe Trayvon was the one screaming for help, come into this courtroom and tell jurors what they think because the science is not valid.

MARTIN: And yet, though, there have been any number of witness who've gone in and given that opinion. The mother of Trayvon came in, the mother of George Zimmerman came in, friends of George Zimmerman came in. Can you explain that?

STUTZMAN: Under Florida law, and I presume laws in other states, if you put on scientific expert evidence, that science can't be junk science. And in the case here, the standard was, is the science used to analyze these voices respected and regarded as valid by the scientific community?

And the defense put on four audio experts, including an FBI analyst who says, no, you can't trust this science. So laypeople like Trayvon's mom and Trayvon's brother and George Zimmerman's mom, they can say what their opinion is, but they're not offering expert testimony. These experts - not good enough.

MARTIN: I want to, kind of, end our conversation today with - our update here with where we started. We started our conversation by saying that the overall impression that people inside the courtroom have, and people watching this closely, is that the prosecution's put on a very weak case. Is that because their evidence was simply weak or that they presented it poorly?

STUTZMAN: Yes to both. But yes big-time to the first. If you remember back when this happened, Trayvon was shot on February 26th, George Zimmerman was questioned at police headquarters and allowed to go home. And George Zimmerman was not arrested, and George Zimmerman was not arrested, and George Zimmerman was not arrested. And that led to civil rights leaders, national civil rights leaders getting involved, marches and rallies across the country.

And Trayvon's family and attorneys for the family held this up as an example of a police department in the deep South who turned their eyes away from what was clearly a racially motivated killing. Well, if you look at the evidence, it was weak then, it's weak now. So what police and the state attorney's office was trying to do back then was evaluate the evidence and determine whether they had probable cause and the likelihood of a conviction.

And here we are, near the end of the trial, the state has put on all of its evidence, we're scratching our heads and saying, you know what, there's not much evidence here. So the special prosecutor in this case, Angela Corey, took the evidence that she had, and it wasn't much, and she and her team have come forward and put on a case that's very weak. They've also been outworked, outsmarted, out-strategized, and out-lawyered by defense attorneys Mark O'Mara and Don West. So it's a combination of factors.

MARTIN: Rene Stutzman is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. She's been covering the trial of George Zimmerman from the beginning, and she was kind enough to join us from the courthouse in Sanford, Florida. I want to emphasize once again that we caught up with her before today's proceedings began, and she was kind enough to take time to do that. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

STUTZMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.