Skip to main content

Can Zimmerman win over the jurors?

By Eugene O'Donnell, Special to CNN
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
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
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT