Did the Prosecutor Screw Up in the Zimmerman Case?
Listening to the lead prosecutor's final argument in the Zimmerman case, it's hard to believe he really wanted a conviction.
Lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda lost focus from the moment he opened his mouth and began: "A teenager is dead. He is dead through no fault of his own. He is dead because another man made assumptions…."
Not only is de la Rionda's voice flat, his tone subdued and resigned, he begins by presenting the victim as an abstraction, characterizing him in a neutral, almost dismissive way as "a teenager," who also happens to be dead, which everyone knew before the trial started. As narrative hooks go, this one is barbless.
The prosecutor adds that this teenager "is dead through no fault of his own," as if the question before the jury was what did Trayvon do to deserve killing? Why even address the question of Trayvon's fault when you're supposedly trying to convict Zimmerman? Even if there's good reason to expect the defense to try to put Trayvon on trial, why put it at the top of your summation as if it's a credible question?
And then he says Trayvon is dead "because another man made assumptions?" Really? Isn't Trayvon dead because another man shot him? Doesn't that other man have a name? Isn't Zimmerman the one on trial here? Isn't that him over there, 27 years old, 5 feet 7.5 inches tall, 204 pounds?
They Pay TV Anchors Millions a Year to Ratify the People in Power
Despite de la Rionda's passionless prose and torpid performance, some have praised his work. On ABC News, Diane Sawyer said that "prosecutors gave it all they had." If that was all they had, they didn't have much.
Why did the prosecutors eschew an approach more relevant to conviction, something simple and direct, like:
George Zimmerman killed an unarmed, innocent teenager who was trying to go home.
George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with a single shot to the chest, a single shot at close range that killed Trayvon Martin in a matter of minutes.
Having shot Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman did nothing to try to save the life of the boy dying at his feet.
This is cold-blooded.
If We're Not Careful, We Run the Risk of Persuading the Jury
But de la Rionda says nothing this forceful and direct. He waffles slowly through the general narrative, sort of trying to seem like he's building some sympathy for Trayvon. But it's late in the trial and the prosecution has done little to bring Trayvon alive for the jury – much less than it did to humanize Zimmerman. In the closing, de la Rionda doesn't even know how old Trayvon is. If the prosecutor doesn't care enough about a dead child to know his age, why should a jury care more?
When de la Rionda talks about Zimmerman's words for his wife on the phone shortly after the killing – "Tell her I killed him" – the prosecutor has a chance to nail Zimmerman's almost sociopathic lack of feeling. Instead, de la Rionda says only, "That's kind of matter of fact." No, it's chilling and possibly incriminating.
And then he spends minutes on an irrelevant diversion, talking about how Zimmerman had decided to start a neighborhood watch because of all the alleged crime that had gone on, and he compliments Zimmerman for that. The prosecutor says that wasn't an act of ill will (he didn't say how he knew that). He says this was a "good thing" and that Zimmerman arming himself was a "good thing," and so on, none of which helps the prosecution, of which de la Riondi is nominally the lead.
His presentation had no discernible organization, no flow, numerous diversions, enough meandering to allow one to wonder if it could be deliberately unconvincing. He spent ten minutes reviewing Zimmerman's recorded statements to no compelling point, while punctuating the recitation with the comment, "That's good," about one Zimmerman action or another.
Why Wouldn't the State Support the Players on Its Team?
At another point he spent close to ten more minutes denigrating state's witness, Rachel Jeantel, who was 18 and on the phone with Trayvon Martin at the moment he was shot. The denigration was in the form of a defense of or an apology for her being Haitian, unable to read cursive, and "not that well educated." He did not explain how well educated a high school student should be. And he did not explain why the prosecution failed to prepare this important witness properly. (In a television interview after the trial he said by way of excusing the verdict, "We don't get to pick our witnesses.")
Again and again de la Riondi cycled through blocks of evidence, like the many inconsistent and inconclusive 911 phone calls, without coming to any coherent conclusion. Instead, again and again and again, he'd finish a topic by telling the jury, "You decide." This was a virtual refrain – "you decide" – a refrain that, when added to the fuzzy presentation of evidence, just reinforced doubt, whether reasonable or unreasonable.
His closing argument lasted more than two hours and slowly wound down with more than three minutes of near silence, as de la Riondi had the jury look at slides that outlined the prosecution's case in text, as he occasionally and unconnectedly commented. Whatever energy his presentation might have built up was dissipated, and he closed with a few sentences that were repetitions of things he'd said before. He closed by saying the defendant was guilty of 2nd degree manslaughter, without even using his name – a closing that ended not with a bang but a whimper.
Many legal commentators have criticized the prosecution's handling of this case, but few have done so as sharply as Jarvis DeBerry in the New Orleans Time's Picayune (nola.com), where the headline on his July 16 column read, "Did George Zimmerman's prosecutors try to get him off?"
Based on his conversation with a former prosecutor who is a current defense attorney, who chose to remain anonymous, DeBerry wrote that this lawyer who's tried hundreds of cases said "he's never seen prosecutors who want to win make the series of missteps that the Florida prosecutors made. So he's convinced they lost on purpose."
The lawyer argued that the prosecutors should have sought a change of venue for the trial, since the potential conflicts it presented had already led to recusals of one county prosecutor and two judges, as well as a probably tainted jury pool.
He faulted the prosecution for its jury selection, failing to get even one male juror or one black juror, and for failing to use their challenges to remove clearly unsympathetic jurors. The now-infamous juror B37 went unchallenged, even though she revealed during jury draw that she remembered "riots in Sanford" that never happened.
The lawyer was incredulous at the inept preparation of Rachel Jeantel, as the prosecution allowed her to take the stand and testify in a manner that was sometimes unclear and potentially alienating, especially to a jury of six non-black women.
The lawyer was generally critical of the degree to which the prosecution went about making the case for the defense, in particular playing Zimmerman's interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. If the prosecution had omitted it, the defense would have been prevented from playing it by the rules of evidence. "If it hurts your case, let the other guy do it," the lawyer said: "They didn't want to win this case."
And Then There Was the Controversial State Attorney in Charge
Running the prosecution team was elected state attorney Angela Corey, who was appointed by the governor as special prosecutor for this case after the local prosecutor's recusal. Corey is a controversial figure in Florida legal circles and was accused of filing a "perjurious affidavit" in the Zimmerman case by attorney Alan Dershowitz of Harvard Law School in 2012. Corey was criticized by others for charging Zimmerman with 2nd degree murder since, they argued, there wasn't enough evidence to prove it.
In a news conference after the verdict, Corey didn't address the verdict directly. She began by saying:
We are so proud to stand before you and to tell you that when we announced the charges 15 months ago, we also promised that we would seek the truth for Trayvon Martin and due process for George Zimmerman, that we would get all of the facts and details of this very difficult case before a jury, and that we chose to do it that way because we felt that everyone had a right to know everything about this case….
We believe we brought out the truth on behalf of Trayvon Martin.
In a later television interview, when asked to describe Zimmerman with a single word, she hesitated for a long time, then said softly, "Murderer," and gave a small, sad smile.
So the Plan Was to Lose by Over-Playing the Effort to Win?
Why is she spitting in the jury's eye like this after the verdict? Legally, Zimmerman is not a murderer, though he is a killer. More perplexing, how does this apparent belief in Zimmerman's guilt fit with a plan to get "all of the facts and details" of the case before a jury? With all the facts and details, and no prosecution narrative to hang them on, could any jury be expected to convict?
But this is not a woman who doesn't know how to win a conviction in a seemingly difficult case. In 2010, Marissa Alexander fired a single shot into the ceiling in the midst of an argument with her abusive husband. A 32-year-old African American mother of three, Alexander said it had been a warning shot and claimed protection under the Stand Your Ground law. She had no prior criminal record.
She was charged, tried, and convicted by prosecutor Angela Corey. Alexander is currently serving a 20-year sentence, not for killing or harming anyone, but for outing a bullet in the ceiling. According Corey, Alexander wasn't afraid when her husband was in a rage and threatening her.
According to Corey, the Zimmerman case was never about race.
There's no way to know with certainty what the prosecutors were trying to accomplish, consciously or not. But it's clear what they have accomplished, and it doesn't look like justice.