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Trayvon Martin Case: Will Zimmerman Face a Jury?

April 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer arrested in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, made his first appearance before a Florida judge Thursday. Judy Woodruff, Lynn Whitfield, city attorney for Hallandale Beach, Fla., and the University of Miami School of Law's Scott Sundby discuss the case's next steps.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The Florida killing that became a national cause moved into court today. The man accused in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin had his initial hearing.

MAN: He is coming before the court, or will be here soon, I understand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The scene was the Seminole County Jail in Florida, and the judge began by reminding George Zimmerman of his legal protections.

JUDGE MARK E. HERR, Seminole County, Fla.: Remember your right to remain silent. All the other rights that he has told you about, you have to say nothing, and we will go forward here on some procedural matters only at this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was no plea, and no bail was set.

Instead, the appearance lasted about five minutes, just long enough for the judge to set a formal arraignment for May 29. The 28-year-old Zimmerman had turned himself in Wednesday, after he was charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

After today’s hearing, assistant state attorney Bernie de la Rionda dismissed claims that the charge is not justified.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA, assistant Florida state attorney: We charged what we thought was appropriate and that’s what we’re going to rely on. And we will leave it at that. Again, we look forward to presenting this case in a courtroom of law. That’s why we’re all here. We appreciate that you’re doing your job, but let us do our jobs. Let the defense and let the state do their jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But defense lawyer Mark O’Mara voiced concerns that Zimmerman might be convicted by public opinion, not by the evidence.

MARK O’MARA, attorney for George Zimmerman: Let the system work. It — really, truly, it works. And now that we have focus on it, it’s going to work even better, because I’m sure you will tell us if it’s not working properly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last night’s arrest came 45 days after the Martin shooting and the ensuing national outcry over the role of race in the criminal justice system.

MAN: Wherever you go in this country, the darker your skin, the more you look like a criminal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On Feb. 26, Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, had called 911 to report a suspicious-looking individual, the 17-year-old Martin.

Despite a dispatcher’s warning, Zimmerman followed Martin. A struggle ensued, and Zimmerman shot the unarmed teenager in the chest. Police decided not to charge Zimmerman after he said he acted in self-defense, under Florida’s stand your ground law. Martin’s parents disputed that account, and maintained their son had been targeted because he was black.

They voiced relief last night after a special prosecutor announced the decision to press charges after all.

SYBRINA FULTON, mother of Trayvon Martin: We simply wanted an arrest. We wanted nothing more, nothing less. We just wanted an arrest. And we got it. And I say thank you. Thank you, lord. Thank you, Jesus.

TRACY MARTIN, father of Trayvon Martin: This is just the beginning. We have got a long way to go. And we have faith.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is still possible a judge could dismiss the case against Zimmerman before it goes to trial. For now, he remains behind bars pending a decision on bail.

We get analysis of some legal considerations surrounding the pending trial from Lynn Whitfield, who is the city attorney for Hallandale Beach, Florida. She’s a former assistant state’s attorney for Miami-Dade County. She also practiced as a criminal defender. And Scott Sundby, he teaches criminal law at the University of Miami School of Law. He served as a special assistant U.S. — United States attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

And we thank you both for being with us.

Lynn Whitfield, to you first.

We have heard so much already about George Zimmerman. We saw him today for the first time standing there looking at the judge, listening. He didn’t speak very much. But did we learn anything new or important about him just by what we saw?

LYNN WHITFIELD, former assistant state’s attorney, Miami-Dade County, Fla.: I don’t think so. I don’t think you can really learn about a lot about this case from just looking at a person. I think this is really a case where we’re going to have to hear the evidence that’s going to be presented during the trial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Scott Sundby, what about you, just by looking at George Zimmerman?

SCOTT SUNDBY, University of Miami School of Law: No, I would agree with Ms. Whitfield. There’s not a lot that you can tell, other than you have got somebody who’s obviously very nervous and probably very scared of what lies ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you, Scott Sundby, The Orlando Sentinel today reported that it had obtained a copy of an affidavit of probable cause, it said, prepared by the prosecutors which it said contends that Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, confronted him.

And then it goes on to say that his mother identified the screams on the 911 tape as screams of her son. Is that significant information?

SCOTT SUNDBY: Well, it certainly helps to explain why the special prosecutor decided to bring charges, whereas before she took over, there obviously was a reluctance on the part of the Sanford police and state attorney’s office to move forward.

That is, of course, the evidence which the state is putting forward. The defense is likely to contest it. I’m sure that they’re going to be doing forensic analysis of that have 911 call to try to see if they can further identify the screams.

But it gives us at least a outline of why the state is suggesting that this deserves second-degree murder charges.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lynn Whitfield, do you make anything special or important out of what is in this affidavit?

LYNN WHITFIELD: Yeah.

I think it shows us that the special prosecutor took her time and really reviewed the evidence. Some of the evidence that’s very important, I think, for to be considered in this case are the 911 calls, the fact that the dispatcher told him not to follow, that it’s clearly evident that he did follow Trayvon and did catch up with him, the fact that you could hear the screams even in the neighbors’ homes.

Of course, voice analysis will probably have to be done. And that, as a defense attorney, would be one of the things that you would be looking to challenge at trial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lynn Whitfield, staying with you, does that — so is that the sort of solid evidence that you would expect the prosecutor would have had to have had to have brought the charge of second-degree murder?

LYNN WHITFIELD: I would expect that the 911 tapes would have been very important to the prosecutor, because that’s something that no one can change.

That’s already been recorded. It’s a part of the record for the police department. They haven’t been altered, to the best of our knowledge. So I believe that is solid evidence going forth in this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Scott Sundby, in connection with the second-degree murder charge, how solid, how — how firm, how solid does the evidence need to be for a prosecutor to do what the prosecutor in this case did?

SCOTT SUNDBY: Well, so, the standard for bringing the charges is relatively low, which is essentially probable cause to believe that they can prove those charges in court.

But any prosecutor worth her salt — and I’m sure this special prosecutor is quite good — is going to not want to bring charges which she doesn’t believe that she can prove beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury. And so she’s going to have to be pretty confident that this evidence is going to stand up in court and meet the pretty high standard for the mental state that they’re going to have to show in order to get a second-degree murder conviction, which is that George Zimmerman, in Florida’s terminology, had a depraved mind.

That is that he was acting in such a reckless fashion toward Trayvon Martin that it manifested in extreme indifference to the value of Trayvon’s life. And that’s a pretty high charge. The lesser charge which many thought would be brought and which is still a possibility for. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

SCOTT SUNDBY: . . . at trial would be something like involuntary manslaughter. So she’d have to have a lot of confidence in that evidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lynn Whitfield, we did hear Martin’s attorney — I should say — and his name is Mark O’Mara.

He told reporters today that a high percentage of murder cases, in his experience, don’t go to trial. That suggests that there’s plea bargaining. So, how does that statistic — does that statistics — does that sound accurate to you? And do you think there’s a good chance this may not go to trial?

LYNN WHITFIELD: Well, I’ve been doing criminal law for over 20 years. And I would say that not only for murder cases, but most criminal cases don’t go to a full jury trial.

But it does not mean that it necessarily pleads out. There’s going to be motions are going to be filed that will be heard by the judge which could result in a dismissal of the charges, or it could ultimately plead to something of a lesser charge.

You have not only the involuntary manslaughter, but you also have aggravated manslaughter of a child for a child under the age of 18, which we all know Trayvon was only 17. Or you could have voluntary manslaughter. So it could either plea or be dismissed by the court, if the court finds that the affirmative defense of justifiable homicide may be valid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Scott Sundby, what about the police investigation here? There’s been a lot of comment about that. What role do you see that playing in this case?

SCOTT SUNDBY: Well, it’s interesting, because it could go in sort of both directions.

I’m sure that the defense is — while the criticism of the police was that their failure to engage in certain types of investigation led to a reluctance to charge George Zimmerman, that kind of becomes a defense argument now, which is that, well, how much can we rely on this evidence if not all the T’s were crossed and the I’s dotted in the police investigation?

So much like, if you remember the O.J. Simpson case, there was all sorts of arguments about how the blood was accurately collected, there may be similar types of arguments underlying the defense here.

I do think it’s one reason why Ms. Whitfield is quite correct that the 911 tapes are probably going to play a critical role here because it’s the one piece of evidence which isn’t going to be altered. But it is going to be — it could play a role in the case in terms of the defense saying that they did not do — lay the proper groundwork, so how can we accept much of the evidence that is later brought in, especially interviews with witnesses, where they may have made inconsistent statements on what the police said they said and they’re saying?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Lynn Whitfield, this case has received so much public attention. How do you see that affecting Trayvon Martin’s — the case against George Zimmerman and his killing and Zimmerman’s ability to get a fair trial?

LYNN WHITFIELD: Well, I think the fact that it’s received so much public attention will play a part as it relates to jury selection, because you’re going to have to try to find six people who have not heard about this case or who have not made up their mind about what the result in this case should be.

And I think the fact that we have so much social media networking now is going to play a part, because everybody’s all over Facebook all over the country expressing their views on this case. So I think, as it relates to jury selection, it will play a part. As it relates to the evidence being presented in court, it will not play a part.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lynn Whitfield and Scott Sundby, we thank you both.