The audio played in court Thursday remains as chilling as ever, cries recorded in a 911 call that captures the violent struggle between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, ending in a fatal blast of gunfire.
Lawyers played the recording Thursday as part of a crucial hearing to determine the extent of expert testimony that will be allowed during the trial when jurors will try to decide who was hollering in fear during the confrontation.
For prosecutors, the testimony at trial -- set to begin with jury selection Monday -- could show Zimmerman as the aggressor in the fatal shooting of the unarmed Miami Gardens teen, whose slaying drew worldwide scrutiny on the small town of Sanford.
Zimmerman has maintained that he was crying for help just before firing in self-defense as Trayvon beat him.
Up first Thursday: FBI voice recognition expert Hirotaka Nakasone, who testified that he could isolate just three seconds of screaming in the audio clip. He described the cries as “not normal, uttered by someone who was facing imminent threat of death.”
But Nakasone said he could not identify whose voice was screaming -- testimony that could help the defense if allowed during the trial. He spent most of Thursday afternoon explaining to the judge how humans examiners can interpret audio differently - and the limitations of technology.
“Nobody has system that can compare short segments of of screaming voice against reasonable natural speech,” Nakasone said.
The playing of the 911 call was an emotional moment in a day of pre-trial hearings that otherwise mostly featured technical jargon, prosecutors’ interoffice politics and bickering between lawyers in the case. The hearing continues Friday.
Zimmerman, 29, is charged with the February 2012 slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon during a confrontation inside a gated Sanford community.
The racially charged case sparked national headlines when police in Sanford, just north of Orlando, initially declined to arrest Zimmerman after the man claimed he fired in self-defense.
That rainy night, Zimmerman called 911 to report Trayvon as a “suspicious guy” looking into homes and acting as if he were on drugs. Despite a police dispatcher advising him to stay put, Zimmerman got out of his truck and a scuffle ensued.
The following months saw widespread furor and large rallies to push for Zimmerman’s arrest. Prosecutors from Jacksonville, specially appointed by the governor, eventually charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Seminole Circuit Judge Debra Nelson will decide, likely on Friday, on the reliability of the experts’ testimony and whether jurors will be allowed to hear it.
Several experts analyzed the 911 calls from that night, some of which captured voices believed to be either Trayvon or Zimmerman. One state audio expert, Alan Reich, has said he hears Zimmerman say “these shall be,” which he calls a “seemingly religious proclamation,” while Trayvon, scared and in a high-pitched voice, screams, “I’m begging you,” just before the shooting.
The State Attorney’s Office has said the methods used by the experts are time-tested. Defense lawyer Mark O’Mara, in a recent court document, argues that Reich has not disclosed his “methodologies.”
The “Frye” hearing, where either side can challenge the admissability of scientific evidence, started late Thursday afternoon after lawyers spent most of the day haggling over other issues.
Nelson declined on Thursday to rule, before trial anyway, on a defense request to sanction prosecutors for allegedly failing to disclose key text messages and photos found in Trayvon’s cell phone.
The new data included photos of naked “underage” girls, Trayvon smoking, a photo of a gun and texts describing what appeared to show the teen arranging the purchase of a firearm. The information was later released to the media by the defense but won’t be shown initially to jurors.
Defense attorney Donald West told the judge he lost between 50 and 100 hours of time because of delays in trying to obtain the full evidence from the phone.
The State Attorney’s Office information technology director, Ben Kruidbos, testified Thursday that he was the one who uncovered the evidence and that he feared it had not been turned over to the defense.
“I think all information being shared is important in the process to ensure that it’s a fair trial,” Kruidbos said.
Prosecutor Bernardo De La Rionda, in grilling his own office’s employee, portrayed Kruidbos as upset that he had been accused of an earlier unrelated leak to a local blog and unhappy with his new boss and restrictions on access to internal databases.
The prosecutor also suggested that the cell phone’s raw data had indeed been turned over to the defense.
Kruidbos’ attorney, former Jacksonville prosecutor Wesley White, also testified that he contacted Zimmerman’s defense as part of his obligation “as an officer of the court.”
De La Rionda, in testy exchanges, tried to paint White as a disgruntled employee who had left the office while performing poorly. The prosecutor pressed White on whether he plans to challenge State Attorney Angela Corey for her elected seat.
“I haven’t made up my mind,” White said.
Earlier on Thursday, Nelson ruled that certain witnesses won’t be masked and hidden from the public during their testimony. O’Mara had asked that the witnesses testify behind a screen to avoid “ridicule or retribution” if Zimmerman is acquitted.
But lawyers for the media objected, and prosecutors said the screen would “confuse jurors.”
“We don’t do secret witnesses in this country,” Scott Ponce, representing The Miami Herald and other media outlets, told the judge.