Trayvon Martin case: George Zimmerman trial could be months off

Brad Knickerbocker

For the killing of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman will spend a week in jail – or perhaps the rest of his life.

Defense attorneys hope to get Mr. Zimmerman out of the Seminole County Jail in Florida a week from Friday on April 20 when a bond hearing is scheduled. If convicted of second-degree murder, the charge brought by prosecutors this week, the neighborhood watch captain who shot the unarmed teenager in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., faces up to life in prison.

In any case, says Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, it’s very, very early in the process of detailing charges, gathering evidence, and building a defense. As a result, he says, any trial won’t begin for months.

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“I cannot imagine it going to trial within the year,” Mr. O’Mara told NPR.

At this point, the only official document in the case is a brief, three-page affidavit filed by special prosecutor Angela Corey.

It states that Zimmerman “profiled” Trayvon, who was “unarmed and was not committing a crime.” Zimmerman “assumed Martin was a criminal [who] did not belong in the gated community.”

There is nothing in the affidavit to indicate that Zimmerman was motivated by race in following Trayvon. (Zimmerman is white and Trayvon was black.) But in his cellphone call to 911, Zimmerman “made reference to people he felt had committed and gotten away with break-ins in his neighborhood.”

At this point, the chain of events leading to Trayvon's death as outlined in the affidavit becomes hazy. It says “Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued.” Zimmerman – the only surviving eyewitness to the event – says he was headed back to his car when Trayvon attacked him. In any case, there is some physical evidence that Zimmerman had been injured.

The affidavit also says that Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, “has reviewed the 911 calls and identified the voice crying for help as Trayvon Martin’s voice.”

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper has reported that experts it contacted could not confirm that it was Trayvon's cry because they had no sample of the teen’s voice to compare. But using a sample of Zimmerman’s voice, they confidently eliminated Zimmerman as the one crying out in distress.

Although it could be months before Zimmerman’s trial begins and ends, it’s also possible that his guilt or innocence could be quickly determined under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which allows citizens to use deadly force rather than retreat in the face of a potentially life-threatening encounter.

"It is going to be a facet of this defense, I'm sure," O’Mara, an experienced defense attorney, told the Associated Press. "That statute has some troublesome portions to it, and we're now going to have some conversations and discussions about it as a state. But right now it is the law of Florida, and it is the law that is going to have an impact on this case."

There's a "high likelihood it could be dismissed by the judge even before the jury gets to hear the case," Florida defense attorney Richard Hornsby told the AP. Karin Moore, an assistant professor of law at Florida A&M University, said the law "puts a tremendous burden on the state to prove that it wasn't self-defense."

Since Florida passed its Stand Your Ground law in 2005, the state has seen a tripling of instances in which justifiable homicide is successfully used as a defense in shooting cases. The challenge for Zimmerman is explaining why he followed Trayvon rather than wait for a police officer to arrive, as the 911 dispatcher had told him to do.

Zimmerman is expected to enter a not guilty plea during his May 29 arraignment hearing.

Before that, his attorney will argue that Zimmerman be allowed to remain free on bond – pointing out that his client did not flee the area during the six weeks since he shot and killed Trayvon.

"I think he deserves to be out on bond, with whatever conditions the court believes appropriate to protect him and the process," O'Mara told NPR. "I would like him out, so that he can assist me in preparing for his defense."

To prove their case, prosecutors must show that Zimmerman committed an “imminently dangerous” act that showed a “depraved” lack of regard for human life.

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