Skip to main content

Can Zimmerman win over the jurors?

By Eugene O'Donnell, Special to CNN
July 2, 2013 -- Updated 1542 GMT (2342 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eugene O'Donnell: In George Zimmerman's trial, his attorney began with a bad joke
  • O'Donnell: Resorting to humor in a trial is fraught with risk of appearing too casual
  • He says the defense must counter the appearance of callous indifference
  • O'Donnell: The more self-serving Zimmerman sounds, the less trustworthy he appears

Editor's note: Eugene O'Donnell, a former New York City police officer and prosecutor, is a professor of law and police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

(CNN) -- Trial lawyers use an expression -- "You can't unring a bell" -- after a jury is exposed to something damaging. Even if a judge commands people to disregard that something, the harm is done once the words have been uttered.

George Zimmerman may be wishing that several ringing bells sounded in his attorney's opening statement last week could be unrung, beginning with a now infamous joke.

After a streamlined prosecution opening in which a rapt courtroom was told of efforts to resuscitate Trayvon Martin's lifeless form and heard a straightforward argument that Zimmerman shot Martin "because he wanted to, not because he had to," Zimmerman's attorney Don West chose to open his defense by telling a joke.

Eugene O\'Donnell
Eugene O'Donnell

Resorting to humor -- even in traffic court -- is fraught with risk, but seems a particularly unwise idea at the outset of a murder case in which the defense must counter the appearance of casual and callous indifference on Zimmerman's part. Even worse, perhaps, it runs the risk of appearing to trivialize the trial itself. (The joke chosen even implies that selected jurors who weren't savvy enough to dodge their civic duty will now have their time wasted.)

Prosecutors will tell you that the most significant challenge to securing a guilty verdict is to persuade initially resistant jurors to grasp the gravity of a case, making them at least open to returning a guilty verdict. Several post-joke comments made by West in his opening could unwittingly pave a path to conviction.

West said that it was a dangerous dog in Zimmerman's neighborhood that forced his hand, necessitating that he buy a 9 mm Kel-Tec PF automatic firearm. The attorney matter-of-factly suggested it was the American way for an ordinary person, faced with an uncontrolled animal in his community, to procure a firearm. (Firing shots at a menacing dog could easily imperil others, of course.)

Arguing that during the confrontation with Martin, Zimmerman's head was struck against the pavement, West told the jury: "When you get your bell rung, stuff happens." While defending an emotional case like this is admittedly a tricky high-wire act, these words suggest an act of vengeance by an armed man rather than a genuine effort to avoid death. It will not be surprising to hear those words repeated back in the prosecution's closing statement. Five of the six jurors are mothers for whom "stuff happens" may seem an insufficient accounting for the termination of a life cut short shy of two decades.

Zimmerman called Martin a 'suspect'
The George Zimmerman trial

By his lawyer's account, Zimmerman's worries were not confined to perceived community dangers, but to his own physical well-being. He wanted to learn martial arts, West said, but washed out of fight school, where he was described as too "soft."

Many defense attorneys deliver short openings or don't open at all because of the risk of a bad backfire. West's lengthy opening resulted in a composite picture of a person who easily conjures threats and fears, sought a gun as a leveler for his insecurities and whose response to these perceived threats could be seen as questionable and retaliatory.

Criminal defendants are not only at the mercy of the state's awesome powers, but also must live with the tactical decisions of their attorney. Trying to persuade an appeals court to overturn your conviction because of detrimental choices made by your lawyers at trial is all but impossible.

On Monday, the prosecution resorted to the often potent technique of using a defendant's inconsistent statements in an attempt to collapse his believability and blunt possible jury empathy for him. Prosecutors showed a video of Zimmerman giving an expansive explanation of what happened during a scene walk-through the day after the shooting, followed by playing a lengthy taped interview that was conducted by Sanford police a couple of days later.

The prosecution hopes that jurors will agree that the more Zimmerman explains his actions, the more self-serving he sounds, and the less trustworthy he will appear, something vitally important for someone who, when all is said and done, offers the only account detailed enough to justify using lethal force.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Eugene O'Donnell.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1119 GMT (1919 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1212 GMT (2012 HKT)
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1312 GMT (2112 HKT)
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT