George Zimmerman's criminal-justice background ruled admissible

Miami HeraldJuly 3, 2013 

SANFORD -- Lawyers in the George Zimmerman murder trial argued for close to an hour Wednesday morning about the admissibility of documents showing the former neighborhood-watch volunteer’s interest in police work and criminal-justice studies.

Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled in favor of the state, allowing prosecutors to present Zimmerman’s application for a police ride-along, a rejection letter for his application to a police department, and coursework from criminal-justice classes he took for an associate’s degree.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, from Miami Gardens. The six-person, all-female jury returned to court Wednesday, the eighth day of witness testimony, after Nelson’s ruling.

The state began by calling its 29th witness, Sonja Boles-Melvin, registrar at Seminole State College, where Zimmerman applied in fall of 2011 and hoped to graduate in spring of 2012.

Witness No. 30, Lt. Scott Kearns of Prince William County, Va., Police Department, followed Boles-Melvin’s brief testimony. He confirmed that the department rejected Zimmerman as an applicant in 2009.

On Tuesday, prosecutors chipped away at Zimmerman’s version of what happened the night he fatally shot Trayvon.

They called to the witness stand Zimmerman’s best friend, federal air marshal Mark Osterman, who wrote a book on the case that quoted Zimmerman saying something he never told investigators: that Trayvon grabbed Zimmerman’s gun as they scuffled.

And jurors heard from Dr. Valerie Rao, a former longtime assistant Miami-Dade County medical examiner, who consulted for the state on the case and concluded that Zimmerman’s injuries were “very insignificant.”

Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder and is claiming self-defense, told police that Trayvon repeatedly punched him in the face and “slammed,” “bashed” or “whaled” his head into a concrete sidewalk.

“The injuries are so minor,” Rao testified. “To me, slamming implies great force.”

Tuesday, the seventh day of witness testimony in a case that has drawn national attention and sparked debates on race, brought a fair share of drama in and out of the courtroom.

Prosecutors filed a request that Nelson conduct an inquiry into an Instagram photo posted by defense attorney Don West’s daughter last week.

The photo shows West and his daughters holding ice cream cones with the caption: “We beat stupidity celebration cones,” followed by the hashtag #dadkilledit.

In court documents, prosecutors called the posting “inflammatory” and asked for the judge’s help “to ensure that witnesses and court proceeding are treated with respect and not as occasions for inappropriate jokes.”

They said the photo and caption appeared to be referring to the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, 19, of Miami, who spoke with Trayvon on his cellphone moments before he was shot.

The defense team responded by calling the state’s filing “irresponsible,” noting that the photograph was taken and posted before Jeantel’s turn on the witness stand. West, who signed the defense response filed Tuesday, asked Nelson for an inquiry into the state’s filing, fearing it may rekindle threats that he said have been made against his family.

In other sparring that happened outside the presence of jurors, prosecutors argued for the judge to strike part of lead investigator Chris Serino’s testimony from Monday. A previous motion stipulated that investigators in the case would not testify about their opinions, only facts.

Nelson ruled in favor of the state, throwing out Serino’s answer to defense attorney Mark O’Mara’s question about whether Serino believed Zimmerman was being truthful during questioning. Serino had answered yes.

Nelson instructed jurors to disregard the question and answer.

With jurors present, Serino finished the second day of his testimony, with lawyers on both sides vying to get in the last question. Nelson warned them to wrap it up when prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda stood for direct examination.

Serino acknowledged during questioning by de la Rionda that a phrase Zimmerman uttered while on the phone with a police dispatcher — “f-----g punks” — could be construed as profiling, and it did show “ill-will and spite.”

But under cross-examination, Serino said that he found no significant inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s statements to police — testimony that could help the defense. He also said he didn’t find it unusual or cause for concern when Zimmerman remarked that screaming heard on a 911 recording “doesn’t even sound like me.”

Osterman, Zimmerman’s best friend and the person who encouraged him to buy a firearm, testified as a state’s witness, focusing mainly on what Zimmerman told him on the ride back from the Sanford police station early on Feb. 27. That story largely followed the same one Zimmerman had told police.

But it was an excerpt from a book Osterman wrote last year, Defending Our Friend: The Most Hated Man in America, that contained something different than any of Zimmerman’s other statements.

“[Trayvon] took his hand that was covering my nose and went for the gun, saying, ‘You’re gonna die now, motherf-----,’ ” the book quotes Zimmerman as saying. “Somehow, I broke his grip on the gun where the guy grabbed it between the rear sight and the hammer. I got the gun in my hand, raised it toward the guy’s chest and pulled the trigger.”

No DNA from Trayvon was found on the gun, and a latent-fingerprint expert testified on Tuesday that she could not recover any identifiable fingerprints from the weapon.

Prosecutors played for jurors a televised interview Zimmerman did with Sean Hannity last year.

In it, Zimmerman responds to one of the interviewer’s questions about Florida’s Stand Your Ground law by saying he’d never heard of it until after the shooting. That may come into question Wednesday as prosecutors present evidence about Zimmerman’s criminal-justice coursework.

Zimmerman also mentioned several times during the Hannity interview that Trayvon broke Zimmerman’s nose. Whether his nose was actually broken was a point of contention during testimony last week from Zimmerman’s primary-care provider and others who saw his injuries.

Zimmerman faces up to life in prison if convicted as charged.

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