As Zimmerman Trial Nears End, Race 'Permeates The Case'

NPR icon by Mark Memmott
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Jacob Langston

The defense is expected to wrap up its case Wednesday afternoon at the murder trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer accused in the February 2012 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin.

At midday, The Orlando Sentinel was leading its latest story with this news:

"The judge in the George Zimmerman murder trial issued key rulings this morning, blocking the defense from putting on testimony about 17-year-old Trayvon Martin's text messages or using a computer animated recreation of the teen's shooting as evidence. The defense will be allowed to use the animation as a demonstrative aid, likely during closing arguments. But it will not go back with the jurors as evidence when they deliberate."

As we've written many times, Trayvon's death and the way authorities handled the investigation reignited a national discussion about race relations.

The 17-year-old was killed on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman had called police to say there was a "suspicious" person in the area. At some point, the two came into contact. Zimmerman says he shot Trayvon in self defense, after the younger man attacked him. Trayvon's family members and their supporters say Zimmerman racially profiled the African-American teen and should not have followed him. They also dispute Zimmerman's claim that he was defending helself.

Anger over the fact that authorities didn't immediately arrest Zimmerman led to protests in Florida and in other cities across the nation.

Wednesday on Tell Me More, former federal prosecutor Pamela Pierson told host Michel Martin that during the trial so far, "race is the 500-pound gorilla in the room that nobody is talking about. [But] I think it permeates the case — it has from the very beginning. The furor about whether Zimmerman was going to be charged. ... And despite the judge's and the attorneys' efforts to keep racial or racist language to a minimum or out of the courtroom, I think it definitely is permeating the case."

Pierson, now a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said she saw race entering the picture particularly in the reactions to the defense attorneys' cross examination of Trayvon's friend Rachel Jeantel.

Defense attorneys, she noted, try "to destroy someone's credibility. ... That's their job — to attack their credibility. But we wouldn't be hearing 'Oh this was unfair' or 'this is racially biased,' " if the witness had been that "a thin, white, well-spoken woman" instead of the African-American Jeantel.

As for the case itself, Georgetown Law professor Paul Butler said on Tell Me More that:

"It's a kind of lousy murder case because for murder the prosecution will have to prove what's going on in Zimmerman's mind. That he was malicious. That he hated Trayvon. That he had all this ill will. And I'm not sure we've seen a lot of evidence of that.

"On the other hand, it's a pretty good manslaughter case. And the jury will have the option, almost certainly, of convicting him of that. Because for manslaughter, all that has to be proved is that Mr. Zimmerman was reckless, that he's kind of a loose canon. And I think we've seen plenty of evidence of that."

Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts Tell Me More.

Closing arguments are likely to begin as soon as Thursday the Zimmerman trial.

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