When the George Zimmerman trial begins next month, jurors, at least initially, won’t hear about Trayvon Martin as a pot-smoking would-be thug who brawled, sought out guns and got suspended from school.
A judge on Tuesday ruled that Zimmerman’s lawyers won’t be allowed to present in opening statements Trayvon’s tough-talking text messages and social media posts, nor any discussion of his marijuana use — part of a defense strategy to shred the character of the Miami Gardens teen slain last year in Sanford.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson’s decision Tuesday came during a quick-moving hearing in which she delivered a series of pre-trial victories to prosecutors.
She also denied Zimmerman’s request to delay the trial, and sequester hundreds of potential jurors when trial jury selection begins June 10.
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The attorney for Trayvon’s family, Benjamin Crump, speaking to media outside the courthouse, hailed the judge’s decisions.
“Trayvon Martin did not have a gun. Trayvon Martin did not get out [of] the car to chase anybody. Trayvon Martin did not shoot and kill anybody,” Crump said. “Trayvon Martin is not on trial.”
Zimmerman is set for trial for the killing of Trayvon, an unarmed teen whose death captured worldwide headlines, spurred racial tension and sparked scrutiny of Florida’s self-defense law.
Trayvon is African American, while Zimmerman is part Hispanic.
Defense attorney Mark O’Mara told reporters that he was happy with the judge’s rulings but suggested that the information about Trayvon’s past can still “become relevant” for jurors if prosecutors present evidence beyond the five-minute encounter between Trayvon and Zimmerman.
“The Martin family, through their handlers, presented a picture of who Trayvon was, and who George was, that is totally inaccurate,” O’Mara told reporters after the hearing.
In February 2012, Trayvon had traveled to stay in Sanford, just north of Orlando, with his father following a suspension from school.
A self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old Trayvon during a confrontation in a gated community.
He was not initially charged after claiming he acted in self-defense.
Prosecutors later charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. He claims that Trayvon, while suspiciously loitering in the housing community, attacked him and during a life-or-death struggle, he had no choice but to pull his pistol and shoot the teen.
Last week, Zimmerman’s defense team released text messages and photos obtained by prosecutors from Trayvon’s cellphone. In the messages, he talks about getting in fights and his suspension from school. The messages also indicate he was interested in trying to buy a firearm.
“His familiarity with guns, seeking to purchase guns, ongoing fighting, use of drugs, looking to buy drugs all fit in squarely” with Zimmerman claiming he no choice but to act in self-defense, O’Mara told the judge.
Zimmerman’s defense lawyers also said Trayvon’s past marijuana use, or perhaps withdrawal from chronic use of the drug, may have sparked the teen’s aggression.
“We have a lot of evidence that marijuana use had something to do with the event,” O’Mara said, pointing out that Zimmerman called 911 to report a prowler who appeared to be on drugs, and convenience store footage showed the teen “swaying” while buying candy shortly before the shooting.
But prosecutors said the information was “unfairly prejudicial” and not relevant to what happened that night. Nelson agreed and barred either side from mentioning the material during opening statements.
The judge also said defense attorneys could not mention in opening statements that Trayvon had been in fights or witnessed brawls. O’Mara claimed that he has a video Trayvon filmed of “two buddies beating up a homeless guy.”
The evidence could still come before jurors depending on what evidence is presented by prosecutors during the trial.
Expert testimony on Trayvon’s marijuana use on the day of the shooting — an autopsy revealed he had the active ingredient for the drug in his system — could be subject of legal wrangling during trial.
In other legal action Tuesday:
• Nelson refused to delay the trial after O’Mara insisted that the defense had not had time to properly prepare for witnesses in the case, including a state audio expert who identified Trayvon’s voice on a 911 recording crying out just before the shooting.
Next week, in a hearing scheduled for Thursday, the judge will consider whether the technology used to enhance the audio is reliable. Nelson will also rule whether prosecutors deliberately hid Trayvon’s cellphone texts and photos from the defense.
A former employee of the Jacksonville state attorney’s office, which was specially assigned the case by the governor’s office, testified briefly Tuesday that he called O’Mara to tell him about the evidence.
• The judge declined a defense request to allow jurors to visit the gated community where Trayvon was shot and killed, saying it would confuse jurors and be impossible to re-create the exact lighting and rainy conditions.
“I think it’s a logistical nightmare,” Nelson told the lawyers.
• The judge also declined a defense request to sequester the entire jury pool, also a daunting logistical nightmare. O’Mara said pressure from the community to convict might sway the initial pool of 500 jurors.
To shield their identities for now, potential jurors will only be referred to in court by a number assigned to them. No decision had been made yet on whether to sequester the six jurors, and alternates, during the entire trial.
On Friday, the judge will consider arguments by lawyers representing the media about whether showing the faces of jurors on camera or in still photos should be prohibited.