When George Zimmerman spotted Trayvon Benjamin Martin on a rainy February night as the Miami Gardens teen returned from a convenience store with a can of Arizona fruit punch and a bag of Skittles, Zimmerman saw a troublemaker, a “f---ing punk” up to no good, prosecutors said Monday.
So Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer already alarmed by a recent rash of burglaries in his gated community, pursued Trayvon with a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol at the ready, fatally shooting the Miami Gardens teen. In a fast-moving opening statement, assistant state attorney John Guy described the volunteer as a vigilante on a mission to rid his block of “a--holes” like Trayvon.
The defense countered that Zimmerman was forced into a confrontation he didn’t want. As a concerned citizen trying to protect his neighborhood, Zimmerman only shot to save his own life after he was viciously attacked, his attorney, Don West, told jurors.
The sharply different pictures of what happened on February 26, 2012, in a townhouse complex in this Central Florida city emerged during opening arguments in a case that has grabbed headlines for more than a year and focused renewed attention on the country’s enduring struggle with race. Zimmerman’s delayed arrest sparked civil unrest including marches and protests across the country and in Sanford.
But inside the fifth-floor courtroom where every seat was taken Monday, Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial is likely to explore particular moments from the night Trayvon was killed, such as the minutes that Zimmerman followed him, the screams on 911 recordings and the extent of Zimmerman’s injuries from his scuffle with the teen.
On Monday, attorneys from both sides addressed those issues in their opening remarks to jurors but asked them to draw contrasting conclusions.
From the prosecution’s perspective: Zimmerman, now 29, didn’t shoot Trayvon, 17, out of self-defense. Nor did he fire the single, lethal shot into Trayvon’s chest because he had to.
“He shot Trayvon for the worst of all reasons: because he wanted to,” Guy said in a courtroom packed with reporters, Trayvon’s visibly upset parents and members of the public.
When it was the defense lawyer’s turn, West spoke to jurors for more than three hours about the shooting, zeroing in on one point: Trayvon was not unarmed.
“He armed himself with the concrete sidewalk,” West said, adding that Trayvon had badly injured Zimmerman in the altercation. “That is a deadly weapon.”
The state opened its case with a jolt of profanity uttered by Zimmerman himself the night of Trayvon’s killing. “F---ing punks,” Guy repeated to jurors three times in five minutes. “These a--holes, they always get away.” Zimmerman said those words while on a non-emergency call with police, reporting Trayvon as a suspicious person; prosecutors say his phrasing showed the malice and depraved indifference necessary for a second-degree murder conviction.
Guy also tried to portray Zimmerman as someone who wanted to be a police officer, took classes on self-defense law and carried two flashlights and a loaded gun when he stepped out of his car that night. He asked jurors to listen closely to the background screams on a 911 call made by a neighbor during the fight between Zimmerman and Trayvon.
“Listen to when the screaming stops,” he said, noting that the yelling ends with the sound of a gunshot.
He said Zimmerman “profiled [Trayvon] as someone who was about to commit a crime in his neighborhood.”
“And he acted on it,” Guy said. “That’s why we’re here.’’
West presented a vastly different version, detailing the minute-by-minute events that led to the shooting, asking jurors to look at diagrams of the townhouse complex and crime scene and to listen to the chilling 911 call from another perspective.
His opening got off to a rocky start when he told jurors a knock-knock joke that bombed — about the difficulty of jury selection. The state objected to his opening statement nine times in three hours and the judge ruled in the state’s favor each time.
After the lunch break, West noted that the prosecution had started its case with fiery speech — all emotion, no proof.
“My focus is on the detail [even] if I have to sacrifice passion,’’ West said, adding that his own speech may be perceived as “boring” and “somewhat technical.”
West said his client felt threatened. “Little did [he] know at the time, in less than 10 minutes of first seeing Trayvon Martin, he would be sucker-punched in the face, have his head pounded on concrete and wind up shooting Trayvon Martin, tragically killing him,” he said, later adding, “When you get your bell rung, stuff happens.”
Jurors heard the four-minute phone call – twice during the opening and again during witness testimony – in which Zimmerman first reports seeing Trayvon in the complex. Zimmerman describes Trayvon as, “real suspicious,” possibly on drugs, and says “he is up to no good.”
Later, as the 911 tape with the screams and gunshot played, Trayvon’s mother quickly left the courtroom. Jurors looked uncomfortable and some of those watching from the public gallery cried.
West said he plans to bring in an eyewitness to testify that he saw a person wearing the kind of clothing Trayvon wore that night “mounted” on top of Zimmerman, “beating him senseless.” He also said he will present testimony from a young woman in Miami who was on the phone with Trayvon as the teen walked back from the convenience store. The friend, West said, heard Trayvon confront Zimmerman about why he was being followed.
By Monday’s end, four witnesses had testified, including the 911 operator who took the initial phone call from Zimmerman.
During a news conference before court began, lawyer Ben Crump, representing Trayvon’s family, called the trial a simple case.
“There are two important facts in this case. No. 1, George Zimmerman was a grown man with a gun.
“No. 2, Trayvon Martin was a minor who has no blood on hands — literally, no blood on his hands. There was none of George Zimmerman’s DNA on Trayvon Martin’s hands or under his fingernails. We believe the evidence is overwhelming to hold George Zimmerman accountable for killing Trayvon Martin.”
Trayvon’s parents, who have attended jury selection for the last two weeks, also talked to reporters.
“I am here as Trayvon’s mother,” Fulton said. “As I have been every day, I will be attending this court to try to get justice for my son. I ask that you pray for me and my family because I don’t want any other mother to have to experience what I am going through now.”
Tracy Martin added that the family will “hold onto (Trayvon’s) smile which strengthens us.”