Some details in George Zimmerman’s account of what happened the night he fatally shot Trayvon Martin changed in his various interviews with investigators, according to testimony Monday in Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial.
But the two lead Sanford Police investigators in the case said under cross-examination that they did not consider the differences in Zimmerman’s statements significant.
“Most people don’t tell you the same story the exact same way two times,” Officer Doris Singleton testified.
Monday marked the start of the second week of testimony in a case that has drawn national attention in the year and a half since Trayvon, an unarmed 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, was shot and killed in a Sanford gated community while visiting his father.
A 44-day period between the shooting and 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. A special prosecutor from Jacksonville charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder; he maintains that the teen ambushed him, and that he acted in self-defense.
Detective Chris Serino told defense attorney Mark O’Mara on Monday that he and Singleton were under intense pressure to move the case forward.
That pressure is partly what led to what O’Mara called a “challenge” style of interrogation of Zimmerman by Serino and Singleton three days after the shooting.
In contrast to non-hostile interviews that the officers conducted with Zimmerman the night of Trayvon’s death, the 52-minute interrogation on Feb. 29 was at times tense and antagonistic.
“You wanted to catch him. You wanted to catch the bad guy, the f-----g punk who can’t get away,” Serino said to Zimmerman, referring to a phrase Zimmerman used on the phone with a police dispatcher.
One detail that changed from Singleton’s initial interview with Zimmerman to a walk-through of the scene the next day followed by the Feb. 29 interrogation was what he remembered Trayvon saying to him.
“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. “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.”
In a later interview, Zimmerman said the teen’s first question was “You got a problem?”
Last week, a witness from Miami who was on the phone with Trayvon moments before the shooting testified that she heard her friend say, “Why are you following me for?” before the phone cut off.
Serino and Singleton pressed Zimmerman in the interrogation about what he thought Trayvon meant when he asked Zimmerman what his problem was. They suggested that Trayvon was “creeped out” and frightened by Zimmerman pursuing him, causing Trayvon to run at one point.
Zimmerman said he couldn’t remember how fast or where Trayvon was running.
“I don’t understand, George,” Serino said in the interrogation. “It’s kind of important. It sounds like he’s running to get away from you.”
Serino on Monday said he thought Zimmerman’s injuries were “lacking” when compared to Zimmerman’s statement that Trayvon punched him 25 to 30 times and repeatedly slammed his head against a concrete walkway until Zimmerman said he “felt like it was going to explode.”
“I still kept an open mind that he could be a victim,” Serino testified.
Serino has called the events that unfolded “avoidable” and had recommended manslaughter charges against Zimmerman. The 15-year veteran later told FBI investigators that 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.
Serino hired lawyer Jose Baez, well-known 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.”
A large portion of Monday’s hearing consisted of jurors hearing recordings and watching video of Zimmerman’s statements to police.
In the first one, less than two hours after 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.”
Zimmerman went on to tell Singleton that Trayvon mounted him on the sidewalk, grabbed his head and “wailed 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 during the interview 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 initial 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 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 shooting. Zimmerman referred to Trayvon as “the suspect” in the written statement and added details that he did not mention in the verbal interview.
Also on Monday, 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 uninterrupted 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.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.