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Opening Statements Begin in Trayvon Martin Murder Trial

June 24, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Opening statements began in the second-degree murder trial against George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman is charged in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Ray Suarez gets an update on this story with NPR's Greg Allen.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: The trial in the death of Trayvon Martin got under way with opening arguments today, 16 months after his shooting stirred protests, anger and debate.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: George Zimmerman walked into a courtroom in Sanford, Fla., this morning for the start of his long-awaited second-degree murder trial. The six jurors, all women, listened as each side laid out its case in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Prosecutor John Guy:

JOHN GUY, Florida District Attorney: Trayvon Martin, 21 days removed from his 16th year, was face down in wet grass laboring through his final breaths on this earth.

And that defendant at that same time was upright walking around preparing, preparing to tell law enforcement why it was he had just profiled, followed and murdered an unarmed teenager.

JEFFREY BROWN: Defense attorney Don West answered on behalf of Zimmerman.

DON WEST, Attorney for George Zimmerman: This is a sad case, of course. As one of your fellow jurors commented during the jury selection process, a young man lost his life. Another is fighting for his.

There are no winners here. George Zimmerman is not guilty of murder. He shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after being viciously attacked.

RAY SUAREZ: On Feb. 26 of last year, Martin, unarmed, was returning from a convenience store when Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, grew suspicious and followed him. He called police along the way.

911 OPERATOR: Are you following him?

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, Defendant: Yes.

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

RAY SUAREZ: An altercation ensued. Martin was shot and Zimmerman left the scene with injuries to his head. In the days following, Zimmerman gave his version of events, claiming self-defense.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: I had my firearm on my right-side hip. My jacket moved up. And he saw it. I feel like he saw it. He looked at it. And he said, “You’re going to die tonight (EXPLETIVE DELETED).”

And he reached for it. But he reached — like, I felt his arm going down to my side, and I grabbed it. And I just grabbed my firearm and I shot him one time.

RAY SUAREZ: In court today, prosecutor Guy questioned the veracity of Zimmerman’s statements about what happened.

JOHN GUY: He told the police that it was just after he hung up with Sean Noffke, the non-emergency dispatcher, that Trayvon Martin approached him, confronted him, said a couple of words to him, and then punched him and knocked him to the ground just moments after that. Ladies and gentlemen, that did not happen.

RAY SUAREZ: The defense, in turn, called into question some of the witness testimony jurors are likely to hear.

DON WEST: You will find, I think, in this case that there are well-meaning and honest people that, based upon limited information or preconceived notions or biases, mean well, but just somehow get it wrong.

PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace!

RAY SUAREZ: The case gained national attention and sparked protests far and wide last year about race, justice, and when it’s reasonable by law to stand your ground.

Police ultimately charged Zimmerman 44 days after the shooting. The trial is expected to last two to four weeks. And Zimmerman faces life in prison if convicted.

For more, we’re joined by Greg Allen, a correspondent for NPR who is covering the trial.

Greg, did we learn anything today about the cases the prosecution and defense are planning to put on before the jury that we didn’t already know from the pretrial motions?

GREG ALLEN, National Public Radio: Well, I think so, Ray.

You know, we haven’t heard that much from the prosecutors since last year, when they charged Trayvon Martin with second-degree murder. You know, they have not spoken outside of court. They made all their case inside of court. And even in discovery and some of the motions they filed, you only kind of got inklings about where they were going with this.

Today, John Guy started — for the first kind of laid out the case, pointing out, in his view, that George Zimmerman is a vigilante, profiled Trayvon Martin , and that he was actually trying to rid his neighborhood of people that he thought didn’t belong there. And that was the motivation here, and that they believe is enough for second-degree murder.

RAY SUAREZ: At issue is really 10 to 15 minutes between the time George Zimmerman starts following Trayvon Martin and the time he shoots him. Did defense and prosecution present very different versions of what happened during that short period of time?

GREG ALLEN: You know I would have to say I don’t think so. It’s almost more a matter of interpretation and how you read what happened there.

You know, the big question right at the center of this case is, how did the fight start? Who confronted who — whom? You know, who jumped who? Where did it start? What we heard from George Zimmerman and from the defense attorneys — his defense attorneys said that he was jumped by Trayvon Martin. And Donald West today said that Trayvon Martin sucker-punched George Zimmerman.

On the other hand, you have the prosecutors who say that it was George Zimmerman who pursued Trayvon Martin all the way down there. And they believe that he’s the one who actually sparked the confrontation. And they have a witness, a young woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin, who they think will bolster that case. So, I think that’s really the place where they kind of differ of what happened there.

RAY SUAREZ: In the evidentiary hearing, certain items, even certain language was ruled out by the trial judge. What won’t the jury be hearing and seeing in the coming weeks?

GREG ALLEN: Well, in terms of language, I think the prosecutors were happy that the judge didn’t rule out, didn’t stop them from saying that George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon Martin.

They can say that. They made that case today. They were also allowed to use the word vigilante. There were some words that they weren’t allowed to say. They can’t say racially profile. But the prosecution suggests they were never going to use that anyhow.

Probably, the big thing that the jurors won’t hear is the expert — is the testimony from audio experts, people that the prosecutors had lined up who said that — suggested that a voice heard yelling for help on a 911 call actually belonged to Trayvon Martin. That kind of testimony was ruled out of bounds by the judge. She said it wasn’t scientifically credible and she put it aside.

If we hear testimony from audio experts, it will be from the defense side, who will testify that it is impossible to say using science who was heard yelling for help on that 911 tape.

RAY SUAREZ: So, they won’t hear that particular call of a neighbor calling for police backup, but they did hear a lot of George Zimmerman’s call, didn’t they?

GREG ALLEN: Yes. And they actually will hear the tape. And we heard the tape twice today in court. And in fact it was the defense that played the tape of the 911 call. And I’m sure many people have heard it. It’s very chilling.

You hear someone in the background yelling for help while this woman is talking to the dispatcher. And then the call abruptly ends with a gunshot. What we heard, Donald West told the jury he hopes they will hear it several more times, 10 or 15 times, I think he said at one point. I think his thought is that the more you hear the tape, the more comfortable you may get with it. It might not be so chilling on repeated versions when you hear it over and over again.

But the question is who is heard yelling on that tape? And we will hear lots of testimony about that, just not from experts.

RAY SUAREZ: Was there anything unusual about the salty language that was heard in open court today during the opening arguments and even a joke by the defense team?

GREG ALLEN: Right. It was kind of an interesting opening argument, opening statements today.

From the prosecutors, as I say, we haven’t heard a lot from them over the last year. And John Guy, the assistant state attorney, came out with a very strong, very concise opening statement that was, I would say, riveting, from someone who has followed this case for some time.

And he started by quoting directly from George Zimmerman, an aside he made in the call — call to a police dispatcher that night when he first spotted Trayvon Martin. And in the side, he said, “These (EXPLETIVE DELETED) punks, they always get away.”

And, of course, in court, John Guy did not use the word “bleeping.” He said it a couple times, and very stark language. And he said he made this to let you know what was in George Zimmerman’s heart that night that he shot and killed Trayvon Martin.

And he connected that statement that George Zimmerman made in the first call to the police dispatcher with the gunshot, which happened several minutes later, saying, this is what was in his mind when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. So, that was very stark.

On the other hand, as you say, we heard from the defense attorney, Donald West. His opening got off a little slower to a start today, went on very long. And I think he made a real misstep when he made this joke, a knock-knock joke to jurors. And he says — the joke is knock, knock. Who’s there? Trayvon Martin. And if you say, “Who’s Trayvon Martin?” then, of course, you get on the jury.

He said that joke. It fell flat. And I think he apologized for it later, saying that the problem was with the delivery. But, clearly, he stumbled getting started today. But ultimately I think he laid out a very expansive been opening statement that will reflect their case as they go forward.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Greg Allen, thanks for joining us.

GREG ALLEN: My pleasure, Ray.