Lawyers for George Zimmerman on Tuesday canceled an expected hearing to try to have his murder charge dismissed under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law — all but ensuring that Zimmerman will go to trial in June for the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot 17-year-old Trayvon during a struggle last year in a gated community in Sanford, near Orlando, was expected to rely on the Stand Your Ground law in an effort to have the murder case tossed out by a judge without a jury trial. Under the controversial law, a person is immune from prosecution for using deadly force if the person reasonably believes he or she is in danger.
But Tuesday, defense lawyer Mark O’Mara told Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson that he would not seek a two-week pre-trial hearing on the Stand Your Ground issue in April, as originally anticipated.
Shawn Vincent, a spokesman for Zimmerman’s defense team, emphasized that the lawyers have not waived Zimmerman’s right to seek immunity, and might invoke Stand Your Ground during his trial, which is scheduled to begin June 10.
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The approach is unusual: Typically, defendants relying on Stand Your Ground try to have the case dismissed before going to trial. If a judge finds that the defendant’s use of force was justified, the charges must be dismissed.
Even if a judge denies the motion for immunity and allows the case to go forward, the pre-trial hearings can provide strategic benefits to defense lawyers, allowing them to cross-examine prosecution witnesses and get a preview of the state’s case, experts say.
“There are enormous benefits to having the hearing pre-trial,” said Miami attorney Jeffrey Weiner, who has handled several Stand Your Ground cases. “I don’t see a downside.”
A hearing could be risky to Zimmerman if he were to testify — allowing the prosecution to cross-examine him and look for inconsistencies in his description of his encounter with Trayvon. But a defendant is not required to testify at a Stand Your Ground hearing, said Miami attorney Andrew Rier, who also has handled Stand Your Ground cases.
“There’s no harm” to the hearing, Rier said. “The worst that can happen is that you lose your Stand Your Ground [motion] and you go to trial.”
If the judge does conclude that Zimmerman’s use of force was justified, he might also be protected from civil lawsuits stemming from the shooting. Zimmerman could face a wrongful-death suit from Trayvon’s parents, who have hired an attorney.
But it is unclear whether Zimmerman’s defense team will be allowed to ask the judge to dismiss the case based on Stand Your Ground once the trial has begun. That strategy has been attempted, unsuccessfully, in Miami-Dade.
The defendant: Andrew James Rolle, who is accused of murdering a Miami police detective in January 2008. He claims he was defending himself when he shot and killed James Walker in a confrontation in North Miami Beach.
Earlier this year, Rolle’s lawyer asked for a Stand Your Ground immunity hearing to be held at the same time as the trial, allowing Rolle to testify only once. But Miami-Dade prosecutors objected; they worried that they would be unable to appeal the judge’s decision on the Stand Your Ground issue once a jury was selected, because that would raise the issue of double jeopardy, which prevents defendants from being tried twice for the same crime. Rolle withdrew his request this week.
Prosecutors with the Duval County State Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the Zimmerman case, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with second-degree murder for the shooting death of Trayvon on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman said he was watching over a Sanford neighborhood as a crime watch volunteer when he became suspicious of Trayvon, who was walking to his father’s apartment in the rain.
Zimmerman called police, where a dispatcher advised him not to follow the teen. But prosecutors believe he followed Trayvon anyway, triggering the confrontation that left Zimmerman with a broken nose and Trayvon, who was unarmed, dead.
Zimmerman told police that Trayvon attacked him, and said he fired his gun in self-defense. The trial is likely to turn on whether the jury believes Zimmerman started the fight or whether Trayvon did — and whether Zimmerman was justified in firing his gun.
Trayvon’s Miami girlfriend told police that she was on the phone with Trayvon during the moments before the scuffle with Zimmerman, and said Trayvon told her he was being followed by a man who frightened him.
But according to the Orlando Sentinel, prosecutors Tuesday conceded that the woman lied when she told investigators she was hospitalized at the time of Trayvon’s funeral.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.