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Jury Hears Closing Arguments From Prosecution in Trayvon Martin Murder Case

July 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The final phase of the Trayvon Martin murder trial began as the prosecuting attorney offered his closing arguments. Hari Sreenivasan recaps details from the case and Ray Suarez gets an update on the latest from the courtroom in Sanford, Fla., with USA Today's Yamiche Alcindor.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The endgame began today in a racially charged, nationally watched trial in Sanford, Fla., at issue, whether George Zimmerman committed murder when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The prosecution made its closing arguments after the judge issued a key ruling on what the jury’s options will be.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA, Florida assistant state attorney: A teenager is dead. He is dead through no fault of his own. He is dead because another man made assumptions.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The final phase of the trial began this afternoon, as prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda addressed the jury a last time.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: Unfortunately, this is one of the last photos that will ever be taken of Trayvon Martin. And that is true because of the actions of one individual, the man before you, the defendant, George Zimmerman.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Zimmerman had been on patrol as a neighborhood watch volunteer when he spotted 17-year-old teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated community the night of February 26 last year.

Zimmerman called 911.

911 OPERATOR: Are you following him?

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, defendant: Yes.

911 OPERATOR: OK. We don’t need you do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But he did continue trailing Martin, and a confrontation erupted. He says he shot Martin in self-defense after the teenager attacked him. De la Rionda insisted today that Zimmerman went looking for trouble.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: Why does the defendant get out of car if he thinks that Trayvon Martin is a threat to him. Why? Why? Because he has a gun. He has got the equalizer. He’s going to take care of it. He’s a wannabe cop. He’s going to take care of it. He’s got a gun. And, my God, it is his community. And he’s not going to put up with it.

HARI SREENIVASAN: From the start, racial overtones catapulted the case to national attention and triggered protests. And in its closing, the prosecution claimed again that Zimmerman profiled Martin.

BERNIE DE LA RIONDA: But, in this particular case, it led to death of an innocent 17-year-old boy, because this defendant made the wrong assumption. He profiled him as a criminal. He assumed certain things, that Trayvon was up to no good, and that’s what led to his death.

HARI SREENIVASAN: During the trial, Judge Debra Nelson forbade use of the term racial profiling or any arguments about it. Instead, the major conflicts in testimony centered on such issues as who had the upper hand in the fight.

Yesterday, lawyers on both sides used a foam dummy to demonstrate their version of what happened. A forensic pathologist testified the evidence suggests Trayvon Martin was on top during the struggle.

DR. VINCENT DI MAIO, forensic pathologist: So, the wound itself, by the gap, by the powder tattooing, in the face of a — contact with the clothing, indicate — indicates that this is consistent with Mr. Zimmerman’s account that he — that Mr. Martin was over him, leaning forward at the time he was shot.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But eyewitness accounts varied. Some neighbors recall seeing Martin on top, others, Zimmerman. There were also arguments over who made the cry for help on a 911 recording during the fight.

911 OPERATOR: Do you think he’s yelling help?


911 OPERATOR: What is your…

WOMAN: There’s gunshots.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Martin’s mother testified it was her son’s voice.

MAN: Ma’am, that screaming or yelling, do you recognize that?

SYBRINA FULTON, mother of Trayvon Martin: Yes.

MAN: And who do you recognize that to be, ma’am?

SYBRINA FULTON: Trayvon Benjamin Martin.

MARK O’MARA, attorney for George Zimmerman: If it was your son in fact screaming, as you have testified, that would suggest that it was Mr. Zimmerman’s fault that led to his death, correct?


HARI SREENIVASAN: But Zimmerman’s mother claimed the opposite, saying the scream came from her son.

GLADYS ZIMMERMAN, George Zimmerman’s mother: What I’m sure is that that’s George’s voice. The scream is — is — I haven’t heard him like that before. But the anguish that scream that he’s — the way that he’s screaming, it describes to me anguish, fear. I would say terror.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the end, Zimmerman chose not to testify on his own behalf. Along the way, the judge granted defense requests to allow test results showing that Martin had trace amounts of marijuana in his system on the night of the shooting. But she barred testimony about Martin’s past text message records, some of which discussed fighting and guns.

And, today, she ruled that in addition to the original charge of second-degree murder, the jury will be allowed to consider a lesser charge of manslaughter.

Defense closing arguments are set for tomorrow, and then the case will go to the six-person, all-female jury.

RAY SUAREZ: We turn to Yamiche Alcindor, who has been following the trial for USA Today and was in the courtroom today.

And, Yamiche, that’s where you heard the prosecution’s closing argument. Summarize the summation. What evidence did Bernie de la Rionda ask the jury to consider in his final shot?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR, USA Today: His overall statements were that Trayvon Martin was an innocent kid, that he was walking home and that he was doing nothing wrong. So the evidence he used were really the things that Trayvon Martin was carrying.

He talked about the Skittles. He talked about the iced tea that the country’s been talking about for over a year, and he said, these are not weapons, that this was just someone walking home from the store.

He also — he used Trayvon Martin’s body, saying that Trayvon didn’t have blood on his hands. He also pointed to DNA evidence that said there was no prints and no DNA found on the gun.

So that was find of how he used the evidence, but his main argument was that this was a kid who was walking home and that this could have all been avoided if George Zimmerman hadn’t stopped and gotten out of his car.

RAY SUAREZ: With a charge of second-degree murder, the state carries a heavy burden. It has to demonstrate ill will, malicious intent. What could prosecutor de la Rionda point to before the jury today that showed that kind of malicious intent?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, it was really interesting.

Prosecutor de la Rionda really used George Zimmerman’s own statements as an outline for his closing argument. He used statements from Zimmerman to police in this police walk-through, as well as on the night of the shooting. And he also used Zimmerman’s call to police when he spotted Trayvon Martin.

He listened to — he had the jury listen to George Zimmerman say several times, use the word A-holes and F’ing punks and say that the people he was talking about, those A-holes later, after he had already shot Trayvon Martin, he said that there were people victimizing his neighborhood. This was, of course, after the shooting.

So the prosecutor really tried to use Zimmerman’s own words against him and spent a lot of time letting the jury listen to him and letting him almost say the case for himself and almost convict himself in his own words.

RAY SUAREZ: Tomorrow, we will hear the defense’s final argument. Tell us about the thrust of their case, the same two principals, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. What have they been telling the jury over the past weeks?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The defense’s case is that George Zimmerman was a good neighbor, that he was involved in his neighborhood, that he started this neighborhood watch because there were real burglaries going on, that he was being a good person, was being a good citizen, and that in the middle of him being a good citizen, he came upon Trayvon Martin, who overreacted and who punched him, sucker-punched him, and who then attacked him to the point where he had to use deadly force.

So their case is simple: that George Zimmerman was doing nothing wrong and that Trayvon Martin — almost that Trayvon Martin really beat him and that, because of that, he had no other choice, no other option than to shoot the teen.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in the day, the public saw, but the jury didn’t, some very tense exchanges between the attorneys and the judge about what would be allowed in the closing arguments and about what ultimately the jury would be able to consider as far as charges of guilt or innocence.

Tell us about some of those deliberations.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: So, the judge and Don West, which is one of Zimmerman’s attorneys, those tensions were really, really high.

During several hearings, Don West would be arguing with the judge after she made her ruling. At one point, when we were actually in court for 13 hours one day, Debra Nelson, Judge Debra Nelson walked out as Don West was still talking. He was still trying to make an argument, and she recessed the court and Don West kept on talking.

Today, I think I have seen probably the most tense exchange ever, when she said, “I have told you several times and provided you the guidelines to professional behavior in my courtroom, and you continue to not follow them.”

But I don’t really see her making the — using that in any way against the defense. She’s still said that they couldn’t, that the prosecutors couldn’t use third-degree murder today.

She made several different rulings in the defense’s favor in terms of the jury instructions. So, though she’s tense with Don West, she’s still making rulings in the defense of — in the favor of the defense.

RAY SUAREZ: During the trial, were there particular witnesses or particular examinations where the jury, which you were able to observe at close quarters, was engaged, paying more attention, that seemed to be catching their interest?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I think any time you had the lawyers or people or other witnesses actually acting out what could have happened, that was when the jury was most interested. There were times when the jury stood up.

Even today, when prosecutor de la Rionda was on a mannequin straddling, asking how could Trayvon Martin have gotten the gun, I think the jury was very visual. They really liked being able to see things and seeing all the different possibilities. They also were very attentive whenever video was played for them.

But when there was scientific testimony, I could see some juries kind of looking around, scanning the room. And that was when I think that things started getting into the weeds and jurors weren’t following along as closely.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, tomorrow, as I mentioned, we will hear the defense summation, but also instructions to the jury. And there were a lot of — there was a lot of contention during the trial about what the jury will be told to consider. What can you tell us about that?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: I know that there was definitely a lot of back-and-forth.

I can tell you that the jury will not be hearing that it’s not illegal to follow someone. Zimmerman’s attorneys had really fought to put that in there, and the judge decided that she wasn’t going to tell the jury that it’s not illegal to follow someone.

She also said she wouldn’t put any language in there about George Zimmerman provoking Trayvon Martin, even though obviously it’s still their decision whether or not that’s true. She’s not going to mention that issue at all. Those are the things that I picked up on, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: Yamiche Alcindor from USA Today, thanks for joining us.