SANFORD -- Key witness Chris Serino, the Sanford Police Department’s lead investigator in the 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, began his testimony in the George Zimmerman murder trial Monday afternoon.
Serino, the 25th witness called by the state, is expected to testify about how he called the events that unfolded the night of Feb. 26, 2012, “avoidable.” He also interviewed Zimmerman in the aftermath of the shooting.
Serino had pursued manslaughter charges for Zimmerman, 29, for the Miami Gardens teen’s death but the investigator’s bosses rejected his recommendation. Serino later said he was pressured by black officers into filing charges and did not believe there was enough evidence to support charges. That shift in stance could raise questions about the credibility of the law-enforcement witness in the murder trial.
Controversy swirled around Serino, a former Sanford major-crimes investigator, when evidence revealed that he had filed an arrest affidavit for Zimmerman -- about the same time then-Police Chief Bill Lee stated there was no probable cause to support an arrest.
Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor from Jacksonville to take over the investigation; State Attorney Angela Corey’s office filed second-degree murder charges against Zimmerman in April 2012.
The 44-day period before Zimmerman’s arrest prompted Justice for Trayvon protests and marches in Sanford and in other cities as well as accusations that race played a role in the shooting.
Tape-recorded interviews between Serino and Zimmerman revealed the investigator doubted Zimmerman’s story almost from the beginning, saying he suspected it to be “scripted.” Three days after the shooting, Serino, a 15-year-veteran, grilled Zimmerman about what he believed were holes in his account of what happened that might. Serino viewed Zimmerman’s injuries as inconsistent with his story.
After the interviews were made public, Serino requested a transfer to patrol duty, including the overnight shift. He later told FBI investigators that he felt pressured by his colleagues, three African-American officers, to file charges.
Serino hired lawyer Jose Baez, a popular media presence after his successful representation of Casey Anthony in her 2011 murder trial. Baez, who no longer represents Serino, told NBC’s Today show on Monday that Serino “did exactly what he was told through the course of the investigation, until it became outright political.”
Serino’s testimony comes after a colleague, Officer Doris Singleton, testified about statements she took from Zimmerman the night of the shooting.
Zimmerman told Singleton he “screamed ‘Help me!’ maybe 50 times” after Trayvon ambushed him in the dark, beating the neighborhood watch volunteer and telling him, “You’re going to die tonight.”
Jurors on Monday heard Zimmerman’s first recorded statement to Sanford police minutes after he shot and killed Trayvon, who was visiting his father. Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder, claims he acted in self-defense.
“He jumped out from the bushes. He said, ‘What the f---’s your problem, homie?’” Zimmerman, under Miranda warning, said to Singleton in the recording played in court Monday during Zimmerman’s trial. “I said, ‘I don’t have a problem.’ He said, ‘Now you have a problem,’ and he punched me in the nose. He just started punching me in the face. I started yelling for help.”
Zimmerman went on to tell Singleton that Trayvon mounted Zimmerman on the sidewalk, grabbed his head and banged it into the concrete. Zimmerman said he slid onto grass to try to get out from underneath Trayvon.
“I’m still yelling for help. ‘Help me, help me, he’s killing me,’” Zimmerman said in the police station. “He says, ‘You’re going to die tonight.’ ...
“I felt his hand go down my side, and I thought he was going for my firearm, so I grabbed it immediately, and as he banged my head again, I just pulled out my firearm and shot him.”
Zimmerman reported hearing Trayvon say, “All right, you got it, you got it,” after Zimmerman shot him. Zimmerman said he got on top of Trayvon and held down his hands “because he was still talking,” causing Trayvon to say, “Ow, ow.”
In the police interview, Zimmerman told Singleton he was suspicious of Trayvon because the teen was walking casually in the rain and there had been several recent break-ins and other property crimes in the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood.
“These guys always get away,” Zimmerman said to Singleton, acknowledging he had previously reported suspicious people to police but had never before seen Trayvon. “It’s always dark. They always come around at nighttime.”
After the audio recording of Zimmerman’s statement was played in court, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda asked Singleton to read a written statement Zimmerman gave to her the night of the fatal shooting. Zimmerman referred to Trayvon as “the suspect” in the written statement and added details that he did not mention in the verbal interview.
Earlier in the day, the beginning of the second week of testimony in Zimmerman’s murder trial, an FBI voice-recognition expert testified that it was scientifically impossible to determine whose voice is screaming for help in a 911 recording of the fight and shooting.
Hirotaka Nakasone said he was able to isolate less than 3 seconds of screams from the 911 call, which he said was not enough for accurate voice comparison.
He did say, however, that people familiar with the voices in question may be better able to identify the voices. Trayvon’s parents, who say the screams belong to their son, and Zimmerman’s father, who thinks the screams are his son’s, are both expected to testify at some point.
The trial has attracted national attention. The case and its investigation sparked protests and marches in the 44 days between Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s arrest. It also has led to vigorous debate about race and Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground Law.
A six-person, all-female jury, sequestered by Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, will decide Zimmerman’s fate. He faces up to life in prison if convicted as charged.