Zimmerman verdict could come Friday

ebenn@miamiherald.comJuly 11, 2013 

SANFORD -- George Zimmerman's fate could be in jurors' hands by Friday after the defense rested its case Wednesday with Zimmerman declining to take the stand.

When Circuit Judge Debra Nelson asked Zimmerman, 29, what he had decided about testifying in his second-degree murder trial, the former Neighborhood Watch leader stood, straightened his dark suit and spoke softly.

"After consulting with counsel, not to testify, your honor," he said.

With both sides having rested, closing arguments will begin Thursday afternoon. Nelson said she wants jurors to begin deliberations Friday afternoon.

A six-person, all-female Seminole County jury will decide whether Zimmerman is guilty of murder in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, of Miami Gardens.

Prosecutors allege Zimmerman profiled, pursued and murdered the unarmed teen, who was visit

ing his father in Sanford while on suspension from his Miami-Dade County high school. Zimmerman has maintained he acted in self-defense, shooting when he felt his life was in danger after Trayvon ambushed him in the dark.

The closely watched case sparked protests and marches in the 44-day gap between Trayvon's killing and Zimmerman's arrest.

After court Wednesday, defense attorney Mark O'Mara said he was confident in the evidence his side presented and hopeful for an acquittal.

"With evidence the way it is, I think we have a very, very good chance with the jury," he said.

Trayvon's family, meanwhile, is hoping for a different outcome, but family attorney Ben Crump said the family does not want to see any violence in the event of an acquittal.

"The Martins hope that people peacefully protest," Crump said.

O'Mara noted Zimmerman carefully weighed whether to testify, but believed jurors had already heard his side of the story through his statements to police and the testimony of other witnesses.

"A big part of him wanted to get in front of the jury and say, 'This is my story, this is what I've done, and this is why I did it,'" O'Mara said. "It was a very difficult decision for George to make."

Before closings begin Thursday, attorneys will argue about what instructions Nelson will give jurors as they go into their deliberations. In addition to second-degree murder, the state wants the jury to consider possible lesser charges, including manslaughter and aggravated assault; the defense does not.

"Self-defense is self-defense to everything," including murder, manslaughter, assault and battery," O'Mara said. "What happened out there was not a crime."

A manslaughter or aggravated assault conviction could result in a lengthy sentence because a gun was used. If convicted of second-degree murder as charged or of aggravated assault, Zimmerman would face up to life in prison; manslaughter would carry a sentence of up to 30 years.

The judge dealt some blows to the defense Wednesday when she ruled against two pieces of evidence Zimmerman's team had hoped to present to jurors: text and Facebook messages from Trayvon's phone, and a computer-animated re-creation of the confrontation between Trayvon and Zimmerman.

The text and Facebook messages included references to Trayvon getting into fights. The defense-commissioned animation, which prosecutors successfully argued only showed Zimmerman's version of events, looks like a computer game showing a Trayvon avatar walking up and punching Zimmerman's character.

O'Mara said he plans to use the animation as part of his closing argument for demonstrative purposes -- the judge said she will allow that -- but jurors will be instructed not to consider it as substantive evidence.

Wednesday's testimony centered on a law-enforcement trainer and former police officer who said, based on the case records he reviewed, Zimmerman's self-defense claims seem correct.

Zimmerman was "physically lacking compared to Mr. Martin," the witness, Dennis Root, said.

It was his opinion that after 40 seconds of being on the losing end of a violent scuffle, Zimmerman had no other option but to shoot Trayvon.

"Forty seconds is an eternity when you're involved in any physical conflict," Root said. "You only have so much gas in the tank."

Root's time on the witness stand included attorneys from both sides straddling a foam dummy to demonstrate what the fight between Zimmerman and Trayvon may have looked like.

O'Mara got on top of the life-size dummy and, with both his hands on its shoulders, repeatedly bashed its head into the ground, as Zimmerman claims Trayvon did to him.

On cross-examination, prosecutor John Guy was more gentle in straddling the figure, getting Root to acknowledge that Trayvon may have been on top of Zimmerman but trying to pull away when he was shot.

Several jurors stood to get a better view of the attorneys' demonstrations.

Wednesday, the 12th day of testimony in the trial, followed a marathon day of legal wrangling that ran well into the night Tuesday.

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