Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.
As new information continues to surface about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, we’re hearing a lot about how the facts are dividing rather than uniting us. As David Carr points out, as social media and the Internet take over the conversation, what you make of Martin’s use of the Twitter handle @no_limit_nigga, or the hard-to-hear 911 call in which Zimmerman may or may not have used a racial epithet, has a lot to do with your own predilections. Most of us have staked out a position by now. We have a gut sense about whether Martin was killed for little or no reason, or whether Zimmerman truly acted in self-defense, as he claims. We read the evidence in a way that confirms our instincts.
But let’s imagine for a moment that Zimmerman gets arrested, stands trial for homicide, and argues self-defense in court. That is what I still think should have happened, with or without Florida’s Stand Your Ground law (though it’s true that the law hasn’t helped). If Zimmerman is ever tried by a jury (instead of by public opinion), what evidence would be admitted? What would the jury likely hear in deciding whether to convict Zimmerman for Martin’s death?
I asked a few defense lawyers and criminal law experts that question—Dana Bazelon (my sister) and Paul Messing, a law firm colleague of hers; Harlan Protass (a Slate contributor); and Rachel Barkow at New York University Law School, who enlisted her colleague and evidence professor Erin Murphy. Here’s what they had to say, going through the evidence I asked them about, piece by piece.
1. The 911 calls reporting Martin’s shooting. Yes, the calls would be admitted at trial—911 calls are always important in cases like these. I still want to know whether voice recognition software can tell us whether it is Martin’s or Zimmerman’s voice we hear pleading for help on the calls. So far, experts have said they don’t think the voice on the call is Zimmerman’s.
2. The police surveillance video of Zimmerman taken after the shooting. At first glance, the video seems to belie Zimmerman’s story that Martin slammed his head against the ground, leaving him seriously hurt. But Zimmerman’s father said the video was taken after medics cleaned up his son, and ABC today released enhanced digitalization that, according to one of its reporters, shows what “appear to be a pair of gashes or welts” on Zimmerman’s head.
Yes, the video is almost surely admissible. (I’m waffling only because there’s a chance that Zimmerman’s lawyer could keep it out if he didn’t get a Miranda warning and was in custody and being interrogated.) A prosecutor could introduce the video at trial to challenge any variation in Zimmerman’s story about the shooting and to impeach his testimony if he says he had injuries that don’t show up on the video.
3. The account of the funeral director who prepared Martin’s body for burial. He told CBS that he “could see no physical signs that there had been a scuffle or there had been a fight. You know, on the hands, I didn’t see any knuckles bruised, and that is something we would have covered up if it had been there.”
Yes, the funeral director could testify at trial—his testimony goes directly to the question of whether Martin and Zimmerman had a violent altercation before Zimmerman shot Martin. Erin Murphy says the director can tell the jury: "I saw Martin’s body x hours after the incident, and there were no signs of a fight, the same way forensic pathologists routinely testify to the condition of the victim.” My sister Dana and Paul Messing point out that the defense could try to challenge the director for not being qualified as an expert in post-mortem examination. “Still, the important stuff (that he didn't see any abrasions or contusions on the body) would be allowed in,” they say.
4. The account of Martin’s girlfriend. She was on the phone with him in the minutes before he died (and , unbelievably, the police hadn’t interviewed her as of late last week, according to the Martin family’s lawyers). The girlfriend says Martin told her, "I think this dude is following me," momentarily thought he’d lost Zimmerman, and then said: "He is right behind me again. I'm not going to run, I'm going to walk fast." The girlfriend claims she next heard another voice say, “What are you doing around here?” to which Martin answered, “Why are you following me?" She then heard Martin get pushed and sounds as if his phone was hitting the ground.