While the media is all over the Defense attorney’s failed knock knock joke during opening statements, in the long run of the trial, I don’t think that’s going to be a big deal. While it was ill-advised, and certainly fell flat, it’s not so problematic as to irreparably put off the jury. He apologized, and moved on. I am more interested in some of the other things that came up in opening statements.
First, the prosecutor made a bold claim that Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin “because he wanted to.” It’s an interesting strategic gambit, because Zimmerman’s desire to kill Martin is not an element of the crime. The jury instruction for second degree murder specifically states, “it is not necessary for the State to prove the defendant had an intent to cause death.” The State has essentially raised the bar for themselves by telling the jury they are going to prove intent. The claim is further challenging because the injuries that Zimmerman suffered indicate the killing occurred after the physical altercation. If “he wanted to” kill Mr. Martin, why would he wait until he had been beaten to do so? The state will still be entitled to the jury instruction that it is not necessary to prove intent, but they have made a promise to the jury that they will show it.
Secondly, the Defense statement indicated that one of the witnesses saw someone matching Mr. Martin’s description “mounted on top” of Mr. Zimmerman, “beating him senseless.” Witness John Good will testify and has referred to what he saw as a “ground and pound“, which is consistent with the injuries to Zimmerman’s nose and the bleeding from the back of his head. This fits with the Defense story that Zimmerman shot to stop a felony from being committed on himself, which would justify the killing. The Defense will argue that the shooting was justified regardless of who initiated the confrontation. However, the Defense says that Mr. Martin’s friend who had been on the phone with him will testify that Martin initiated the confrontation.
The state will have an extreme challenge, in light of the injuries and eye-witness testimony, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman was not justified in using force under the circumstances. It’s a shame that the case was not reviewed by a grand jury before the state made their filing decision. Keep in mind that the previous prosecutor on the case declined to file any charges, then decided to submit the case to a grand jury. However, after being appointed, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey decided that grand jury review would not assist her, and upped the charges to second degree murder (the reviewing officer had recommended manslaughter charges). She did so in spite of the fact that a grand jury was already in the process of being convened. Ms. Corey had her assistants handle the case, but was present in the courtroom as opening statements began.
There has been a great deal of speculation whether Zimmerman will testify, and he almost certainly will, in order to tell the jury that he felt he was in danger. Depending on how much of his previous statements are entered into evidence, and how much detail the eyewitnesses are able to give, it may not even be necessary for him to take the stand. Still, the jury will want to hear from him, and I fully expect him to take the stand in his defense.
Also, the latest legal issue on the case is whether Zimmerman’s previous calls to the police about activity in his neighborhood will be admitted. As a general rule, character evidence, that is, evidence of a propensity to commit a crime due to the character of the defendant, is not admissible. The other calls will not be admitted unless the state can convince Judge Nelson that there is a relevant reason for their introduction. They may not like the result they are asking for, as the calls may demonstrate that Zimmerman had a reason to be concerned about strangers walking around in his neighborhood. The judge has reserved ruling on that issue.
UPDATE: Here’s new police video, including more documentation of injuries, and the lie detector that Zimmerman passed. His success on the lie detector will not be admitted into evidence, but I still agree with the analyst HLN cites, who believes that an acquittal is likely.