George Zimmerman’s defense strategy

The Trayvon Martin shooting was all over the news in the months right after it happened on February 26, 2012. But now George Zimmerman is looking at going to trial and a lot of material has been released to the public such as the pictures of Zimmerman right after his arrest that night. A new picture from that night was even released a few days ago – about eight months after the shooting.

Up until now all you could find were rehashes of the events and emotional stories about how bad it was for Trayvon. You couldn’t find any analysis of Zimmerman’s theory of self defense, let alone one by a real lawyer who has really put on the self defense theory in an actual trial.

Until now, that is. 

George Zimmerman's booking photo.
George Zimmerman’s booking photo.

And as that lawyer I can tell you Zimmerman is going to win. There are a few minor problems with his defense that I explain below. Take it from me, no self defense case is ever perfect. But Zimmerman’s defense is going to work.

Before I get into it in detail, it’s important to point out that everything I’m presenting comes from the original sources such as the police reports and photographs the police and defense team have released. I’m assuming that the people who testify at the trial will say the same things they said to the police as it is written in the reports. That is kind of a big assumption as people lie all the time, especially in high profile cases. But Zimmerman apparently has good attorneys who will cross examine these people and make sure the police testify about exactly what they said the night of the shooting. The jury will be able to add one plus one and see they changed their story to support the Martin family. I’m talking about the “witnesses” in the neighborhood, of course. 

Anyway, one of the most important documents is the original arresting officer’s redacted police report which you can read by clicking here. Another great place to read all the reports in one place, including the FBI reports, is here.

You can view many of the initial crime scene photos by clicking here. And most importantly, Zimmerman’s original hand written statement from the night he was arrested can be read by clicking here

How Zimmerman’s attorneys will present the self defense case

The state goes first with its witnesses and they are going to say that George Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person at about 7:15 p.m.

A picture of Trayvon Martin at the 7Eleven store just before the shooting.
A picture of Trayvon Martin at the 7Eleven store just before the shooting.

Unless the prosecution does it, Zimmerman’s lawyers are going to put on the clerk from the 7-Eleven to authenticate what Martin looked like in the pictures taken of him a few minutes before he was shot. Martin’s general appearance looks threatening and menacing in the dark hoodie. It doesn’t look like Martin was coming back from a bible study meeting. He looks like he was a dangerous person and the jury isn’t going to like thinking about encountering a guy like Martin in a dark walkway behind some apartments.

Zimmerman re-enacting the encounter the morning after the shooting.
Zimmerman re-enacting the encounter the morning after the shooting.

The first officers who dealt with Zimmerman the night of the shooting are going to have to admit that Zimmerman said he gave up pursuit of Martin and was walking back to his vehicle when Martin approached him from behind and they “exchanged words.” Zimmerman also told them that Martin asked him “Do you have a problem?” Zimmerman says he told Martin “No.”  


Recently released photo of Zimmerman's face right after police first handcuffed him.
Recently released photo of Zimmerman’s face right after police first handcuffed him.

The police are also going to have to testify that Zimmerman told them that he was looking down to get his cell phone out of his pocket when Martin said, “You do now.” Zimmerman said that was the moment Martin punched him in the face and was knocked him to the ground. The photo the police just released of Zimmerman right after the shooting clearly shows Zimmerman with a bloody nose, which supports his account of getting punched in the face. So far no other witnesses have come forward regarding this part of the encounter so all the police have is Zimmerman’s version of events unless they hire an expert witness to recreate the fight and testify that it happened some other way. Not likely that will happen in this case, though, as the facial injuries and Zimmerman’s initial 911 call are consistent with a neighborhood watch person getting punched.

Picture of the back of Zimmerman's head right after the shooting.
Picture of the back of Zimmerman’s head right after the shooting.

The police will also testify that Zimmerman said he saw “stars” after getting punched. Zimmerman said he fell on his butt and hit his back on the ground. Zimmerman said in his written statement that he struggled with Martin but Martin gained a position on top of him which resulted in Martin sitting on top of Zimmerman in the “mounted position.” At least one witness said they saw a black male on top and a lighter skinned man on the ground, which supports Zimmerman’s version of events.

On January 17, 2013 it was reported by the Orlando Sentinel Post that it had a copy of the formal deposition of ‘witness 6’ who told police that he saw and heard Trayvon straddling Zimmerman on the ground and Trayvon was “throwing down blows on the guy kinda MMA-style.” Witness 6 said he was sure he saw Zimmerman on the bottom, was being beat up by a guy wearing a dark hoodie, and was crying for help. This strongly supports Martin’s description of the attack.

A couple of the “witnesses” have tried to change their stories since the shooting. One now claims they actually saw Zimmerman on top, but there is a strong suggestion that her story changed in the weeks after Martin’s family and friends talked to her. Juries see right through that kind of thing. They know that people are truthful and accurate when they are telling police what they saw in the heat of the moment, not weeks later when the high profile case goes crazy.

Closeup of the injuries to the back of Zimmerman's head, taken at the police station.
Closeup of the injuries to the back of Zimmerman’s head, taken at the police station.

The police will have to admit that Zimmerman told them Martin struck him several times in the face and head, (which is consistent with the injuries Zimmerman has in the pictures taken of him that night) and that Martin grabbed Zimmerman’s head on the sides and “slammed his head” into the concrete sidewalk several times. Zimmerman said his head felt like it was “going to explode.” In one interview, Zimmerman says it was like Martin was “whaling” on his head. This is significant because a person can generally only use deadly force to defend themselves from an attack that could cause death or serious bodily injury.

Zimmerman says he began to “wiggle his way off the sidewalk” and began yelling for help. Zimmerman says he made eye contact with several witnesses but then Martin placed one of his hands over Zimmerman’s nose and one over his mouth and stopped his breathing. This is also very important because it makes it credible that Zimmerman thought his life was in danger and so therefore was justified in using deadly force.

They are faint, but there is evidence of facial injuries such as scratches.
They are faint, but there is evidence of facial injuries such as scratches.

A few minutes after Zimmerman’s 911 call, someone in the apartment complex makes a 911 call and the police reports say Zimmerman can be heard in the background “frantically yelling for help.” Zimmerman says he tried to call for help but Martin told him to “Shut the f*** up.” While Zimmerman was being treated at the scene, he told the paramedics that “I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me.” There is some dispute about whose voice is on the recording. It can be expected that Martin’s family is going to try to say it is Martin’s voice but if the jury believes the testimony that Zimmerman was on the bottom it would be very reasonable to believe the victim would ask for help, not the guy on top delivering the beating. I hope his family doesn’t try to lie on the witness stand.

This picture was taken after the police moved Martin's body and tried to resuscitate him. It shows the body was close to the sidewalk.
This picture was taken after the police moved Martin’s body and tried to resuscitate him. It shows the body was close to the sidewalk.

Zimmerman told the police that that there was a struggle for his gun and Martin said “Your gonna die tonight Mother******.” Zimmerman says he slapped Martin’s hand away from the gun and he “unholstered” his firearm and “fired one shot into his torso.” According to Zimmerman’s written statement, Martin was still on top of him when he fired his gun. Zimmerman says Martin sat back after being shot and allowed Zimmerman to sit up and slide out from underneath him.

In Zimmerman’s interview the morning after the incident, he says he tried to slide into the grass to try to get out from under Martin. And when he did, his jacket and shirt came up. Zimmerman said he Martin’s hand go down his side, and he thought Martin was going for his firearm, so he grabbed it immediately, and “as he banged my head again, I just pulled out my firearm and shot him.” This is slightly different from the account that Zimmerman wrote down the night of the shooting and the prosecutors will pound on those differences to make the jury believe that Zimmerman is a liar and has no credibility. I don’t see it affecting the trial, though. I think the jury is going to believe that either the head pounding on the concrete or the act of strangling were sufficient justification for the use of deadly force under the circumstances.

The official autopsy showed Martin was shot once in the center of his chest, just off to the left side. The autopsy report says the shot was fired at Martin from “intermediate range” from Martin’s skin and the bullet traveled directly from front to back. Intermediate range can refer to range that is one to eighteen inches away from the skin and doesn’t leave contact marks such as gunpowder burns.

A lab report says that the hole in Martin’s sweatshirt shows signs of “residues and physical effects consistent with a contact shot” meaning Zimmerman’s gun was very close to the fabric when Martin was shot. This is really important because the result is consistent with the coroner’s finding of “intermediate range.” That means that Zimmerman either shoot Martin when Martin was sitting on top of him or leaned in close before pulling the trigger after they separated. It will be easy for the jury to believe that the shooting happened when Martin was sitting on top of Zimmerman while beating his head into the sidewalk.

Another view of where Martin's body was in relation to the sidewalk.
Another view of where Martin’s body was in relation to the sidewalk.

One thing that will help Zimmerman a lot is that the police say in their initial reports  Zimmerman admitted shooting Martin and complied with the first officers who arrived on the scene. Juries believe an honest man with nothing to hide will tell the truth and cooperate with police. Zimmerman didn’t try to run, fight the cops, spin some strange tale of danger, or make up stuff.

The initial arresting officer said that when he was “in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground.” The arresting officer further wrote that “Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head.” At the police department Zimmerman told the police his back hurt. These facts are important because they support Zimmerman’s story that he was on the bottom and getting seriously attacked.

Florida’s law on self defense

Florida law basically says that you can only use nondeadly physical force to defend yourself against a nondeadly physical attack. If someone is punching you, all you can do is hit, kick, or push to stop the attack and get away. You don’t have to get away or retreat but if you do it helps to show you were the victim. One thing that is important to understand, though, is that you can’t just shoot the guy punching you.

However, Zimmerman could use a firearm in self defense in Florida (and in most other states) if the jury believes it was reasonable under the circumstances for Zimmerman to believe that such force was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

What this means is that the initial punch and probably the later punches on the ground are not sufficient cause by themselves to justify Zimmerman using a gun to defend himself. If that is all that happened then Zimmerman would get convicted.

But, Martin knocked his head into concrete and blocked Zimmerman’s mouth and nose so that he could not breathe. The kinds of injuries Zimmerman has in the pictures are consistent with his statements about getting knocked into the sidewalk. The defense team is going to tell the jury that the injuries could very easily have been fatal. You don’t have to have your own head beaten into concrete to believe that that someone could be killed or seriously injured that way. The jury is going to believe Martin was posing an imminent threat of death or great bodily harm. Concussion, skull injuries, and strangulation are all serious matters that are much worse than a physical punching match. The jury is going to decide that Zimmerman was reasonable in thinking the beating was a serious threat to his life. That makes the shooting of Martin justified. This one is a winner for Zimmerman’s defense team.

Zimmerman’s self defense case isn’t perfect

1. “Intermediate range” gunshot wound.

The first problem people think Zimmerman has is that the corner’s autopsy report says he shot Martin from “intermediate” range. Although it isn’t clear from the reports, “intermediate” range to coroners generally means from one to about 18 inches away from the skin. The other category is a skin contact gunshot wound but that isn’t the case here because Martin was wearing clothing.

Luckily for Zimmerman the gunshot residue report shows that the shot happened close to Martin’s body. Remember that Martin was wearing a t-shirt and a cotton hooded sweatshirt. Both of those absorbed the gunpowder residue – both burned and little unburned particles – from the shot that killed Martin. The lab tech that submitted the report says that the clothing showed “residues and physical effects consistent with a contact shot” meaning Zimmerman’s gun was very close to the fabric when Martin was shot, not touching Martin’s skin. That is consistent with the coroner’s finding of “intermediate range.”

And also remember that Zimmerman says Martin was sitting on top of him when he shot him. Both the coroner’s report and the gunshot residue test support Zimmerman’s account.

2. Straight path of the bullet.

Another perceived problem is that the coroner says the bullet that killed Martin traveled in a straight path from front to back through his body. It could be physically difficult to shoot someone in that way if you are on the ground and Martin was sitting up straight on top of you. The bullet would have to travel at an upward angle into Martin’s body.

The risk to Zimmerman is that the jury could latch onto the “intermediate range” language and think that means several feet away. The flat trajectory means that both Zimmerman and Martin were kneeling or standing up. Therefore, Zimmerman shot Martin after the attack in a rage for having beat him up on the ground.

However, the mechanics of the situation play out in Zimmerman’s favor. It seems reasonable that Martin was leaning over to go after Zimmerman’s head when he was shot. That means Martin’s body was approximately parallel to Zimmerman’s body. The path of the bullet from Zimmerman’s gun while Zimmerman was laying on the ground could reasonably be a straight line into Martin’s body at a right angle.

Zimmerman’s defense team is going to have to demonstrate this pretty well in the courtroom but that’s not hard. You get the investigator to be Zimmerman and the ballistics expert to pretend to be Martin and you can show the path of the bullet that is consistent with Zimmerman’s statement that he shot him while on his back.

3. Martin’s body was found laying stretched out, face down.

Trayvon body 3The first officer on the scene says Martin’s body was laying face down with his hands underneath him. The pictures suggest Martin was stretched out on the ground. That doesn’t sound like someone who was shot while kneeling over Zimmerman and then slouched over to the side when Zimmerman slid out from underneath him. Someone who fell over like that would look curled up in the fetal position. The Prosecutors may argue that the pictures of Martin stretched out straight on the grass suggest Martin was standing up when he got shot, he grabbed the wound in his chest, spun around to try to get away and collapsed face-down on the grass.

If Martin’s attack was over and he had gotten up off Zimmerman before he was shot, the imminent threat was over. There was no need for Zimmerman to shoot to “prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” He didn’t have to shoot Martin at all except out of anger.  If Zimmerman had shot Martin after Martin had gotten up off him, then the killing would have been revenge, and the cops call a revenge shooting “manslaughter.”

But in this case it is reasonable to believe that Martin spun to the side and fell face down after getting shot. Zimmerman probably moved Martin a lot so that he could get up and Martin may have moved a little on the ground. Plus, the police rolled Martin over to try CPR and that could have straightened out his legs. I don’t think there is sufficient evidence for a jury to believe that Martin was standing when he was shot.

4. The infamous sally port pictures showing no injuries.

It was hard to see the injuries to Zimmerman's head in this video.
It was hard to see the injuries to Zimmerman’s head in this video.

A problem that was really hurting Zimmerman at first was that the pictures of him in the police station after he was arrested didn’t look like he had been injured. In Florida, as in most states, Zimmerman could only use a gun to defend himself if he was facing an attack that placed him in imminent danger of “death or great bodily harm.” No visible injuries on Zimmerman sure look like he over-reacted and used excessive force when he shot Martin.

However, the police have now released a number of photos of Zimmerman they took in the minutes and hours right after the shooting. The injuries to the back of Zimmerman’s head look bad and the bloody nose suggests he was hit pretty hard in the face. Of course people bleed a lot after getting hit in the nose during a bar fight and you can’t shoot a guy just because he punched you. 

In this case though, it will be for the medical experts to explain why Martin was doing something to Zimmerman that could have seriously hurt him or even killed him. It doesn’t seem like that will be hard, especially when the defense expert talks about traumatic head injuries that have been in the news a lot regarding soldiers coming back from Afghanistan. Then it is for the jury to decide if it was reasonable for Zimmerman to think that a serious head injury was about to happen to him.

My take is that the jury won’t have any trouble believing Zimmerman was reasonable to think he was on the receiving end of a potentially serious or even deadly attack. Getting your head knocked into concrete a few times isn’t something the jury is going to think was a minor scuffle. They’re going to think it was dead damn serious and Martin got what was coming to him because of what he was doing.

5. Did Zimmerman provoke the encounter?

Another problem that came up early in the news accounts were the edited 911 phone calls from Zimmerman that suggested he was racially profiling Martin. The 911 operator told Zimmerman to stop following Martin and the implication was that Zimmerman was following Martin because he was black. You can’t claim self-defense if you start the fight, especially if you do it because you are racist, and the media made it look like Zimmerman was hassling a  black man. 

Of course, the only account we have of the start of the fight is Zimmerman’s. He says he turned around and started walking away, and then Martin came up to him and punched him in the face. Unless there is a believable witness that hasn’t changed their story to the police a couple of times, the jury won’t have any reason to doubt Zimmerman.

Even if Zimmerman did start the fight, he can still claim the defense of self-defense if Martin upped the ante by turned the regular physical fight into something that placed Zimmerman in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm. The head bashing on the concrete certainly qualifies. 

Zimmerman is going to win his trial.

So you heard it here first. It’s not going to be a perfect defense case but none that go to trial ever are. Zimmerman is going to win. He will not even have to testify. There is already plenty of evidence that Martin was really hurting Zimmerman and the kind of injuries he was inflicting on Zimmerman were dangerous. The concrete sidewalk could have killed or seriously hurt Zimmerman and he had to stop Martin. The gunshot happened when Martin was on top of Zimmerman and was necessary to stop the imminent threat Martin posed. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the State of Florida may drop the charges. I don’t know for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn the prosecutors have already floated a plea deal to a minor charge that doesn’t carry any jail time. It’s sad that Martin died but he should have walked away like his girlfriend told him to do. 

-Samuel Owen

© Samuel Owen 2012. All rights reserved. Please read important notices and disclaimers by clicking here.

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