July 1, 2013— -- By most accounts, last week was not what the state in the George Zimmerman case would have hoped for. In one way or another, more than half of the prosecution witnesses supported Zimmerman's account of what happened the night Trayvon Martin was killed.
Prosecutors started strong with a powerful, concise opening statement from Assistant State Attorney John Guy, in contrast to the silly knock-knock joke and seemingly disorganized and meandering defense argument.
Photos of the final candy and drink that Martin, 17, purchased minutes before his death riveted the jury, followed by haunting images of his dead body, the end result of a quick visit to a 7-11.
But then something happened that many would have thought improbable as this case received wall to wall coverage leading up to Zimmerman's arrest.
Catch up on all the details from the George Zimmerman murder trial.
What the state hoped would be proof that Zimmerman initiated the altercation and that he, not Martin, was on top as they grappled on the ground, did not appear to proceed as planned. A variety of eye and ear witnesses of varying credibility, did offer testimony to support the prosecution theory that Zimmerman was the aggressor before the shot was fired. They either heard what they thought was Zimmerman instigating the encounter or in one case heard a chase (which Zimmerman insists never happened).
But with each witness there were either facts that we now know are not true (like hearing three shots, when there was only one) or indications that their memories have somehow become clearer since the incident itself.
While those sorts of attacks on witnesses, in particular eyewitnesses, are standard fare for cross examination, the state's troubles seemed to extend further than minor inconsistencies.
Even the prosecution's effort to show that Zimmerman was an over-eager, wannabe cop backfired when a witness from the Sanford Police Department, testifying as part of the prosecution's case, admitted that she tried to recruit Zimmerman for a citizen's patrol and that "George was very professional, a little meek, really wanted to make community better."
Then came the state's star witness, Rachel Jeantel, who recounted those final moments on the phone with Martin.
"He told me the man kept following him," Jeantel testified. "I say, 'Trayvon,' and then he said, 'Why are you following me for?' And then I heard a hard-breathing man come say, 'What you doing around here?' ... And then I was calling, 'Trayvon, Trayvon.' And then I started to hear a little bit of Trayvon saying, 'Get off, get off.'"
If jurors believe her, that Martin said "get off," then there seems to be little question that Zimmerman at least initiated the incident.
The problem? She admitted to lying on certain matters, and most importantly she was confronted with an earlier account, where she had recalled Zimmerman uttering the far more innocuous response, "What are you talking about," rather the more menacing "What are you doing around here" The difference between bewilderment by Zimmerman as opposed to a veiled accusation is a significant one.
But the ambiguity surrounding her testimony was nothing compared to the clarity of neighbor and witness John Good. His vantage point and detailed account may be more definitive than that of any other witness to date, and rather than supporting the prosecution's case, he seemed to bolster Zimmerman's claim that Martin was beating him.
Good testified that the lighter skinned man was on the bottom. He also described to the jury the clothing that he saw.
"The color on top was dark and the color at bottom was ... red," Martin said. Zimmerman is a white Hispanic who was wearing a red jacket while Martin, who was black, was wearing a dark sweatshirt.
"The person on the bottom, I could hear a 'Help,'" Good said.
George Zimmerman's Prosecution Has Long Way to Go
The beauty of having a camera in court is that we all can watch the testimony and develop informed (sometimes differing) opinions about how the case is proceeding. In a case this divisive and sensitive I am glad no one has to take my, or any other reporter's word for what happened in court. Yes the Jodi Arias case was fascinating and the verdict in Casey Anthony somewhat stunning, but this is a case where the verdict could extend well beyond the confines of this particular courtroom.
It's not just the facts that the public ought to see and understand, but the law that the jury will be instructed to employ and this has always been a tough legal case for prosecutors (even beyond the issue of whether prosecutors should have just sought a manslaughter charge rather second degree murder.)
Even if Rachel Jeantel is absolutely right about what happened, prosecutors still have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not "reasonably believe" he was "in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm" during their altercation. That is a heavy burden to bear.
If these six women jurors believe the fight would not have occurred but for Zimmerman "following" Martin -- which remains a matter of dispute -- and even if they are convinced that Zimmerman initiated the confrontation, that alone is not enough to convict under Florida law.
When this case entered the public consciousness, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law became a national focus. Under thatcontroversial law, determining who was the aggressor is crucial to assessing whether a defendant can succeed in having a case dismissed. The defense here chose not to rely on that law, probably because they would have lost at a hearing.
Instead, they are arguing classic self defense and so Zimmerman's actions and mindset when he fired the shot are at issue. Was he reasonably in fear for his life or great bodily harm at the moment he pulled the trigger?
This jury could believe Zimmerman was wrong, even be convinced that he stalked Martin and still find that the prosecution had not survived its legal burden beyond a reasonable doubt. These legal distinctions are important and as part of the live coverage on many cable and local news networks they are discussing these issues thereby allowing people to better understand the process.
This is not to suggest in any way that the prosecution should be throwing in the towel. This week they will present evidence of inconsistencies in Zimmerman's own account of what happened and if they find his story implausible that could spell trouble for the defense. Furthermore, jurors can give some witnesses far more weight than others.
But no matter what happens, I know I'll be glad that the world watched and judged it, and the verdict, for themselves.