After three full days of testimony during which the defense portrayed George Zimmerman as a weak man who was pinned down and crying for help when he used his gun in self-defense to kill Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman’s defense team rested their case. Zimmerman himself never took the stand.
Immediately following the testimony, defense attorney Mark O’Mara asked Judge Debra Nelson to dismiss the charges, as he did after the prosecution rested last week. Nelson declined the request, saying “there is substantial evidence, both direct and circumstantial, to allow this case to go to the jury.” The 29-year-old Zimmerman stands accused of second-degree murder after killing the 17-year-old Martin during a confrontation in Sanford, Fla., last year. Zimmerman maintains he was acting in self-defense when he shot Martin, who was unarmed.
The last day of defense testimony largely focused on Dennis Root, a former law enforcement officer hired by the defense as an investigator. Root, who said he offered his services to the defense after seeing media coverage of the case, sought to bolster the defense’s version of events, in which Zimmerman was attacked by Martin after Zimmerman followed the teen, believing he looked suspicious.
“Mr. Martin was a physically active and capable person, Mr Zimmerman is an individual who is by no stretch of the imagination an athlete,” Root said. “I believe it’s my opinion that the physical abilities, he would find himself lacking when compared to Mr. Martin.”
The prosecution, however, painted Root as not a neutral investigator but an advocate for Zimmerman who sought to draw attention to his business as an investigator by testifying as an expert witness in a high profile case. Prosecutor John Guy peppered Root with questions about factual matters that Root didn’t bring up with Zimmerman when Root interviewed the defendant, seeking to cast doubt on his credibility. Root also admitted that when he went to the site of the shooting to get a sense of the lighting, he did so at dusk, even though the shooting took place at night, and said he had forgotten to take into account the change of seasons.
At one point, Guy appeared to get Root to admit he hadn’t asked Zimmerman who started the fight.
“You didn’t ask the defendant whether or not he tried to strike Trayvon Martin?” Guy asked.
“Again, I didn’t spend a lot of time asking him a lot of things,” Root replied.
NBC legal analyst Lisa Bloom said on msnbc Tuesday that Root “I think really overstepped in his direct testimony where he started talking about Trayvon Martin’s physical fitness, which we really don’t know anything about. We know his height and his weight and that’s about it, anything else he knows about Trayvon Martin he heard in the media.”
Tempers have flared in the Florida courtroom over the past 24 hours, with legal proceedings over the admissibility of evidence lasting past 10 p.m. on Tuesday. Judge Nelson actually left the bench Tuesday night as defense attorneys and prosecutors were still exchanging words. Wednesday morning she ruled that parts of an animation that shows Zimmerman’s version of events could be used by the defense in closing arguments, but declined a defense request to introduce text messages from Martin’s phone that discuss fighting. Defense attorney Don West later drew a stern response from Judge Nelson after he objected to Nelson asking Zimmerman if he was going to testify. Attorneys typically object to opposing counsel, not the judge. Zimmerman ultimately decided not to testify on Wednesday afternoon.
After the defense rested its case, the prosecution said they would take the opportunity to call rebuttal witnesses. The prosecution tried to call Adam Pollock, the owner of the local gym where George Zimmerman undertook fight training. Pollock had previously testified that Zimmerman had failed to learn how to punch properly.
Prosecutors asked Pollock if he had not advertised the fact that Zimmerman had taken fight training there. The gym’s website features a tab titled “Zimmerman” that offers users the opportunity to “receive information about the training George Zimmerman received” by emailing a request. The defense quickly objected to this line of questioning. Judge Nelson sided with the defense, saying that prosecutors could have raised questions about Pollock’s credibility during his cross examination but not during rebuttal. Pollock did not testify further.
Wednesday afternoon, as O’Mara moved for the charges to be dismissed, the prosecution singled out Root’s testimony as a reason for Judge Nelson to decline the request.
“Certainly [Root] was very eager to draw conclusions,” prosecutor Richard Mantei said after O’Mara cited Root’s testimony, among others, in favor of dismissing the charges against Zimmerman. “But he also had to admit finally that he had absolutely no idea what exactly went on at the moment that this defendant shot and killed Trayvon Martin.”
The prosecution, however, bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, while the defense need only raise reasonable doubt about Zimmerman’s guilt. Whether or not the jury will have the option of convicting on lesser charges will depend on the instructions given to the jury, which will be addressed Thursday morning. The jury will hear closing arguments in the case that afternoon.
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.