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CNN Special: The George Zimmerman Interview

Aired February 22, 2014 - 19:30   ET


CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: The words "stand your ground" are now well known, but they trigger different reactions in a nation divided about how we punish violent crime in america. Tonight, you're going to hear from the man at the center of it all, George Zimmerman and from the prosecutor who tried him and is now faced with getting justice for the death of Jordan Davis in the trial of Michael Dunn, big questions remain about the law, race and rightful justice.

But we begin with Zimmerman, evil man who knew he could get away with murder or someone who was bailed out from a string of bad choices. The first question people have never heard answered, does George Zimmerman take responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin.


CHRIS CUOMO, ANCHOR, CNN'S "NEW DAY": Do you regret that you killed Trayvon Martin?

CUOMO (voice-over): It's a simple question, but one George Zimmerman can't seem to answer.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, ACQUITTED OF MURDERING TRAYVON MARTIN: Unfortunately, the Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation, so those are the types of questions that, because of the investigation, I have to tread lightly and I can't answer them.

CUOMO: We checked, and the Department of Justice is investigating any civil rights violations but says charges aren't expected. Still, Zimmerman's reluctance seems to be about more than legalities.

CUOMO (on camera): Do you regret that night? Do you have regrets about it?

ZIMMERMAN: Certainly I have think about that night and I think I - my life would be tremendously easier if I had stayed home.

CUOMO: If you could go back, you would have stayed home that night?

ZIMMERMAN: Certainly, yes. In hindsight, absolutely.

CUOMO: And now, as a point of clarification, you said my life would be so much easier. When you say, I wish I had stayed home that night, are you thinking about you and also Trayvon Martin?

ZIMMERMAN: Certainly, I think about them - him. I think about my family. All the families that have been put in any type of dangerous situation. So, yes, I think about everybody involved.

CUOMO: But safe to say, if you could change how that night came out, you would both be alive today?

ZIMMERMAN: I think that's just a different way of rephrasing it.

CUOMO: If you could go back and do it again, you had said you would have stayed home that night?

ZIMMERMAN: I would have stayed home.

CUOMO: So that both of you would still be alive today?

ZIMMERMAN: That's a presumption I can't make. I don't know what would have happened. I could have gotten in a car accident when I left, you know, the -

CUOMO: But you wouldn't have wound up killing Trayvon Martin if you had your way?

ZIMMERMAN: He probably wouldn't have ended up attacking me either if I would have stayed home (INAUDIBLE).

CUOMO: His family - do you think about his family? Is that true?

ZIMMERMAN: Certainly, yes.

CUOMO: Because people want to know that, right? Coming out of this situation, they haven't heard you say "I feel for his family."

ZIMMERMAN: I appreciate the opportunity. I would hope that they had seen that at the bond hearing I did address that.

CUOMO: It's different in court.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, sure, but I was just simply stating that I did address it. It's - because another misconception is that I've never apologized, I've never reached out to the family. Would I like to? Certainly.

CUOMO: What would you say?

ZIMMERMAN: You know, I would say exactly what I said on the stand, that I'm sorry for their loss. And I - just exactly what I said on the stand, most likely.

CUOMO: Thoughts about the victim, Trayvon Martin. The victim was Trayvon Martin. You know that.

ZIMMERMAN: No, I certainly was a victim when I was having my head bashed into the concrete and my nose broken and beaten. So I wouldn't say I was not a victim.

CUOMO (voice-over): Of this, Zimmerman is sure, despite the public outrage painting him as a racist and a strong case by a prosecution calling him a murder. CUOMO (on camera): What do you want to say to people who believe that you went out that night as a vigilante looking for trouble and found it and bailed yourself out?

ZIMMERMAN: I don't focus on them. I deal with their hatred by loving my supporters more.

CUOMO: When people would reach out to you for the wrong reasons, who were supportive of you for the wrong reasons.


CUOMO: You know, because they like that a young black man had been killed, how did that make you feel, that they saw you somehow symbolically as representing them?

ZIMMERMAN: Equally as disgusted with them as I was with people that were threatening my family and saying negative things about me.

CUOMO: Sitting through all of it, listening to the evidence and everybody's different take on you and your actions and your reactions and why, did it make you doubt yourself?


CUOMO: Why not?

ZIMMERMAN: Faith. I know -

CUOMO: In yourself or in God?

ZIMMERMAN: No, God. I know that ultimately he's the only judge that I have to answer to. He knows what happened. I know what happened. So I leave it up to him.

CUOMO (voice-over): A faith that keeps him in Florida, despite a number of threats on his life.

CUOMO (on camera): Did people around you say, George, you've got to go?

ZIMMERMAN: I'll never leave this country and I'll leave my home when I want to leave my home. I know it sounds stubborn and maybe ideological, but I'll move when I want to.

CUOMO: The word "haunted" often comes up in these situations. Do you find yourself haunted by memories of that night?


CUOMO: Because?

ZIMMERMAN: I don't know.

CUOMO (voice-over): George Zimmerman is not haunted by taking a man's life. Perhaps more surprising, Zimmerman thought his life would stay the same.

CUOMO (on camera): The feeling was that people will accept this. You know, I'm going to go through the trial, it is what it is, the outcome will be accepted and then I move on. That's what you thought would happen?

ZIMMERMAN: I was hoping for that, yes.

CUOMO: And when did you realize you weren't going to get what you hoped for?

ZIMMERMAN: I think it was the first speeding ticket when that made international news. It was shocking to me.


CUOMO: And of course speeding tickets would be the least of it.

In a shocker, the man who says he could not hold off a teenager becomes a prize fighter challenging all comers that's next when "CNN Spotlight, The George Zimmerman Interview" continues.


CUOMO: Welcome back. The trial ended but the questions that surrounded George Zimmerman did not. Why would a man stay where he is hated the most? Zimmerman tells us in his own words.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As long as you don't have any warrants you'll be cut loose with a warning. OK.

CUOMO (voice-over): It was a simple speeding ticket, but nothing is simple when George Zimmerman is involved. It would be the first in a string of run-ins with police that some saw coming.

CUOMO (on camera): That expectation that it's just a matter of time, he'll do it again, he'll do it again, this is what he's about. What do you make of that kind of -

ZIMMERMAN: Don't pay it any mind. Don't pay it any attention at all.

CUOMO (voice-over): Next, Zimmerman's wife called 911 claiming he was threatening her and her father with a gun. There were no charges. Their divorce is pending.

Then, Zimmerman's girlfriend accusing him of threatening her with a shotgun. This time, Zimmerman would call 911 to get his side of the story out.

DISPATCHER (voice-over): So why are you calling? What happened?

ZIMMERMAN (voice-over): I just want everyone to know the truth.

CUOMO: His girlfriend would later drop the charges and lift a restraining order against him. During our interview, she and her young daughter wouldn't leave his side. And neither will controversy, thanks in part to his new hobby.

CUOMO (on camera): I've read what you put out there about the paintings. This is therapy. It's helping me. But you had to know they were going to cause attention when you put them out there, right?

ZIMMERMAN: Absolutely.

CUOMO: What did you want that attention to be out? Why are you putting the paintings out?

ZIMMERMAN: To be honest, I was hoping to be able to provide a decent lifestyle for my family.

CUOMO (voice-over): Decent indeed. Zimmerman's first painting sold for more than $100,000. But the next painting was priceless, for a different reason.

CUOMO (on camera): Angela Corey painting. Provocative. I have this much belief in the justice system. You knew that was going to be provocative.


CUOMO: Why do it?

ZIMMERMAN: It was a creative, tangible form to show my inner thoughts, my inner feelings.

CUOMO: Negative towards Angela Corey.

ZIMMERMAN: Oh, of course. I mean it provided a tremendous release for me. So, yes, it was worth it.

CUOMO (voice-over): And then there was the fight. A move as confusing as it was disturbing. The man whose defense at trial was an inability to hold off a teenager was now a prizefighter, willing to take on all comers for charity.

CUOMO (on camera): The idea of you fighting, you know, is just - the image is bad. And let alone that, you know, might be like a black rapper, like DMX or something. I mean just the racial overtones of it, you know, were so horrible. What were you thinking there?

ZIMMERMAN: When I signed on, it was never going to be a black rapper, white rapper, Asian, Hispanic rapper, anything like that. It was going to be an unknown person. It was going to be a smaller event.

CUOMO: The whole theory of this case is that Trayvon wound up beating this guy down, you know, and this was bad. He had the marks on the back of his head. But now he wants to fight? He's a fighter? You know, do you understand how that was - there was a contradiction there for people?

ZIMMERMAN: Yes. And, again, that fraction of people that said that are the small percentage that don't realize that a boxing match with a referee in controlled conditions are significantly different than being mounted. As the witness stated, ground and pounded. If I went out there and I got beat up, the charity was still getting paid. I don't want to get beat up, but I saw it as an opportunity. I never expected it to be - to turn out the way it did.

CUOMO (voice-over): George Zimmerman seems to feel that way about a lot of things. For example, becoming the face of white-black tensions in America.

ZIMMERMAN: I actually had two full Peruvians raising me and one American. So I felt almost like two-thirds of my upbringing was the Peruvian - black people in my family. So it was very shocking to me that simply based off my last name people would make that presumption.

CUOMO: Though he's at the center of a debate about self-defense laws, he has little to say about them.

CUOMO (on camera): Because of what you've gone through, and what your case was about, do you have feelings about self-defense and where the line should be, and what's right and what's wrong? Do you have thoughts about that?

ZIMMERMAN: I am not well versed enough to tell you. I feel until I sit down and study the Constitution and probably 10 years' worth of legal findings, I wouldn't be able to draw a solidified conclusion. And I don't want to do what others have done to me and speak without examining information or facts. I do, however, support our Second Amendment right.

CUOMO (voice-over): You might think Zimmerman would be riveted to the Michael Dunn trial, given its comparisons to his own situation.

ZIMMERMAN: I guess I should have prefaced this interview by letting you know that I don't watch news anymore. I watch comedy shows, home improvement shows. So I - I'm not well enough informed to give you exacts.

CUOMO: How about advocating for the stand your ground laws that many identify with him?

CUOMO (on camera): Are you comfortable being the face of stand your ground?

ZIMMERMAN: I'm not comfortable being the face of anything, to be honest with you.

CUOMO: It's what Zimmerman wants to be the face of going forward that may be the most confounding, justice.

What do you want to do with your life?

ZIMMERMAN: Good. I'd like to professionally be - continue my education and hopefully become an attorney.

I think that's the best way to stop the miscarriage of justice that happened to me from happening to somebody else.

I don't think it should happen to anyone, ever again, not one person.

CUOMO: What was the miscarriage of justice?

ZIMMERMAN: The fact that two law enforcement entities stated that I had acted within the laws of our nation in self-defense.

CUOMO: You don't think it was about the law.

ZIMMERMAN: I know it wasn't, yes.

CUOMO: And what does that make you?

ZIMMERMAN: Like a scapegoat.

CUOMO: A scapegoat for?

ZIMMERMAN: The government, the president, the attorney general.

CUOMO: They would be scapegoating you why? Just to show they're taking a position on something that matters to a lot of people?

ZIMMERMAN: I don't know what they're thinking or why they're thinking it. All I know is that they're doing it. I don't know what agenda they have.

CUOMO: The case is over, but the judgment continues. While George Zimmerman may have won his freedom, he will probably never be truly free.

ZIMMERMAN: I have a lot of people saying that, you know, they guarantee that they're going to kill me, and I'll never be a free man.

I realize that they don't know me. I've learned that the majority of people when they sit down with me one-on-one are - or with my family and I, they get a completely different perspective on me.

CUOMO: When you're somewhere and people recognize who you are, what do you do?


CUOMO: How often do they smile back?

ZIMMERMAN: Ninety-nine percent of the time. The one percent that don't are the most vocal percent, definitely the most threatening percent, because they are very vocal about their displeasure.

CUOMO: People are angry, George. They're angry.

The case wound up being seen as a metaphor for miscarriage of justice, blacks not receiving the same justice that whites do, their lives not mattering as much.

This case became a metaphor, an example from that. Your face became the face of this is the guy who gets away with killing a black kid.

What do you do with that?

ZIMMERMAN: Hope that I'm dispelling those. If it takes one person a day at a time to help them realize that that's not what this case was about, then that's what I'll do.


CUOMO: Coming up, the prosecutor behind the Zimmerman case and the Michael Dunn loud trial speaks out. What does she think about our interview, and what does she think went wrong in the Zimmerman case, and the Michael Dunn trial? Angela Corey joins us straight ahead.


CUOMO: Prosecutor Angela Corey says her record this year is an impressive 38-2. Those two losses, though, include George Zimmerman and the nonverdict against Michael Dunn in the killing of Jordan Davis. What was it like to be at the center of such high profile cases? Were mistakes made? Is the problem the jury or the law, itself? We sat down with Miss Corey and asked her about it all, starting with what she thinks about George Zimmerman calling himself a victim.


ANGELA COREY, PROSECUTOR: There was one victim in that case, and that was Trayvon Martin. He was legally the victim and he was factually the victim, so it's a little bit disconcerting to hear that anyone else would be laying claim to that title.

CUOMO: Supporters of him say, you see, he's a real gun owner. He knew his rights. He was in a dangerous situation and did what our constitution allows. Is that how you see George Zimmerman?

COREY: Well, the way I see anyone who exercises their second amendment rights, myself included, is that with the great constitutional right to bear arms comes great responsibility. And I believe that that responsibility extends to knowing when to put yourself in a dangerous situation, when to draw your weapon, and when to just leave things alone and mind your own business.

CUOMO: Well, several of the notions that you just listed, you could tick off that George Zimmerman didn't follow those directives, yet under the law in Florida, he still wound up having a compelling defense. How can that situation exist, though? Isn't that just a patently obvious example that this law doesn't work, that it creates a confusing standard and a low bar that often rewards poor choices?

COREY: As prosecutors, we believe that the former justifiable use of deadly force covered the people it was intended to cover. It protected homeowners. It protected store owners. You don't even have to use a defense because it's deemed to be justifiable homicide right off the bat. Removing the duty to retreat in certain situations has really hurt prosecution cases. A defendant can say anything they want about threats that were made, and this is especially difficult in a one-on-one situation like we had with Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. No one knows what actually happened because you only had one person left to tell the story.

In the Michael Dunn case, we had jury - I mean independent witnesses who told those jurors we never heard a threat come from the car where those four young men were. Never did we hear anything from those four young men, yet Michael Dunn could take the stand and say he heard several threats coming from the car.

CUOMO: It has to come down to the gun, right? Somebody of three of them or two of them must have believed that Dunn did see a gun and that maybe the kids got rid of it. I mean, what else could it be?

COREY: What it could be is that our law says that the threat doesn't have to be actual, but that it has to be perceived, so it may not have come down to an actual gun or weapon in Jordan's hands at all. We won't know and we'll go right back in and retry this -

CUOMO: How scary is that, though? So I can imagine seeing a gun. You find no gun. I shoot up this whole car and I wind up getting away with it. It's tough to swallow.

COREY: Well, you know, it's a little bit tantamount to the fact that as you alluded to earlier, Chris, that Mr. Zimmerman sustained injuries in a fistfight that would never have allowed the police to arrest Trayvon Martin for any other than a battery. That bloody picture told a story that didn't exist in the law. Getting two cuts on the back of your head is not great bodily harm. There was no broken nose and he had two tiny cuts on the back of his head that needed no further treatment than Band-Aids.

Self-defense is a tough law for us to overcome. It's an affirmative defense that we have a huge uphill battle overcoming, especially where there's injury to someone. We fought so hard for that conviction, put on a very hard fought and good case and the jury simply could not find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Why would the prosecution ever, ever take a hit for that?

CUOMO: Because people feel it's a pretty obvious situation and that whether it was the law or how the case was argued, a man who killed somebody when he didn't need to is walking around free and a young man is gone.

COREY: I understand that, Chris. I do understand their sentiment, and we were hurt by that as well. But what they have to understand is that had nothing to do with race. It has to do with the laws of justifiable use of deadly force. And we have young black men who have walked on not guilty verdicts from shooting and killing other persons but nobody is ever outraged at those not guilty verdicts. Everybody focuses on race. I wish they would stop doing that unless it truly is the issue in the case.

CUOMO: I respect that.

COREY: But I think that the facts and the law - the facts and the law are what they are and I would invite scrutiny into all of our cases on justifiable use of deadly force and not just two of them.

CUOMO: Do you have any concerns as a public official that your job is on the line with these types of cases? And Zimmerman not going the right way, Dunn not going the right way in many people's mind? Does it make you worry about your job?

COREY: Well, first of all, Dunn has gone the right way. We're 4/5 of the way there with Michael Dunn. So for the people who want to criticize me, they're going to do that no matter what we do. Mr. Dunn is looking at 90 years in Florida State Prison with 60 years of minimum mandatory. How anyone can be unhappy with these verdicts knowing we intend to retry count one is beyond me. We're going to keep going into the courtroom and fighting for justice for our victims without regard to what people are saying even though what they're saying is completely uninformed and ill informed.


CUOMO: We'll be right back.


CUOMO: So much of what you heard from George Zimmerman and prosecutor Angela Corey will drive emotions in all directions. Much of this is uncomfortable. That's exactly why the conversation must continue. Zimmerman is not special. There will be more cases where the self- defense laws in Florida and other stand your ground states will wind up justifying apparent excessive uses of force.

We're seeing one right now in the death of Jordan Davis. Any change will not happen in the court of law, but in the court of public opinion, that means you, so let the conversation continue. Thank you for joining us. Have a good night.