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George Zimmerman murder trial may be getting personal

July 08, 2013|By Michael Muskal
  • George Zimmerman, right, greets his attorneys Mark O'Mara, left, and Don West at his second-degree murder trial in Sanford, Fla.
George Zimmerman, right, greets his attorneys Mark O'Mara, left,… (Gary W. Green / Pool Photo )

When defense attorney Mark O’Mara rose to question Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, he offered his condolences to the woman whose son was killed by the lawyer’s client, George Zimmerman. He didn’t get a chance to finish when the prosecution objected on the grounds that O’Mara hadn’t really asked a question, just commented.

For the prosecution, Fulton was the figure of sympathy, mother of the unarmed teenager killed by Zimmerman, portrayed as an overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer and cop wannabe. The prosecution did not want Zimmerman to tap into that sympathy.

As Zimmerman's murder trial moves into its third week on Monday, the question of personalities is very much at the fore. One of the decisions the defense will have to make is just how much should it work to undermine Martin, making him less sympathetic to jurors.

There are also questions about how much the judge will allow, especially after the Martin family and its supporters complained that the defense was seeking to wage a campaign of character assassination over some images and texts on the teenager’s cellphone.

After a pretrial hearing, Judge Debra S. Nelson ruled against the defense and limited what could be brought up about Martin’s life. One of the questions involved Martin’s use of marijuana hours before he and Zimmerman had their confrontation on Feb. 26, 2012, in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman, who says he acted in self-defense, is on trial for second-degree murder.

 Judge Nelson said the marijuana issue could not be raised in opening statements, but that it could be revisited  depending on the prosecution case.

In a news conference after the prosecution formally rested its case on Friday, defense attorney Mark O’Mara hinted that things had changed and cited the testimony of Dr. Shiping Bao, who for a brief time on Friday was a trend on Twitter because of his performance on the stand as a prosecution witness.

Bao, an associate medical examiner, conducted the autopsy of 17-year-old Martin. He testified that Martin suffered in pain from a gunshot wound to the chest and could have lived as long as 10 minutes after the fatal shot.

Under cross-examination, Bao acknowledged that he had previously said that Martin had lived one to three minutes after the shot. He said he changed his opinion because of another, unrelated case with which he was involved.

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda tried to minimize the change, asking Bao whether the number of minutes would have mattered since Martin’s injury meant that he was sure to die.

The jury heard about that change of opinion, but did not learn of Bao’s other reversal, involving the impact of marijuana found in Martin’s body.

Bao said Friday that the amount of THC, the active ingredient of marijuana, found in Martin’s body could have affected Martin physically or mentally. Last November, the doctor said the THC would not have had any impact on Martin.

Judge Nelson, after a hearing without the jury on Friday, decided there had been no violation of the rules of discovery by prosecutors for failing to tell defense lawyers of the changed opinions. Still, O’Mara said he may seek to get the marijuana evidence admitted now that the prosecution had opened that door.

It was at least the second time that O’Mara had raised questions about Martin. When the prosecution was allowed to enter Zimmerman’s school records, the defense attorney hinted that he might seek to do the same with Martin’s.

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