Commentary: Judge’s Decision in Trayvon Trial Sets the Stage

George Zimmerman’s lawyers may not use potentially unflattering information about Trayvon Martin in opening statements, but the trial is likely to be a contest of images.

Posted: 05/28/2013 04:56 PM EDT

A Florida judge has ruled that lawyers for George Zimmerman are now barred from mentioning potentially damaging information about the victim in the trial of the man who is charged with second-degree murder in the death of the teenage Trayvon Martin.

While that is a victory for the prosecution in the case and for the family of Trayvon Martin, it reflects a far more complicated and more highly nuanced legal landscape.

In recent weeks, the actions of Mark O’Mara, the lawyer for Zimmerman, have clearly been geared toward developing a public relations campaign to portray the young Trayvon as negatively as possible. Zimmerman’s lawyer has been working overtime to get into the public consciousness images of Trayvon as a discipline problem at school and elsewhere, as someone prone toward violence and someone who was, quite simply, a menace.

O’Mara is an experienced lawyer who surely knew that none of the information and photos he was peddling would be admissible in his opening arguments in court. However, he engaged in a clever effort to prejudice any potential jurors. It was his calculation that the continued flow of negative information about Trayvon couldn’t help but seep into the minds of the potential jury and help create doubt upon the character of the teenager.

In many ways, the events of the last weeks, coupled with the ruling Tuesday by Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson, have set the stage for the epic trial that is to begin June 10 in Sanford, Florida, the very city where the teenage Martin was shot and killed by Zimmerman in a dark gated community. Indeed, it signals the unofficial beginning of the trial.

It represents a battle between the two sides of what images of the two central figures in the case will prevail. Zimmerman’s attorney is seeking to make Trayvon Martin out to be some ne’er-do-well thug so sinister that a jury could readily understand why a neighborhood watch volunteer like Zimmerman might reasonably shoot and kill him.

To that end, O’Mara and the defense team have worked feverishly even into the three-day Memorial Day weekend to release photos of Trayvon with gold teeth, of information regarding the teenager’s marijuana use as well as revelations of him fighting or being suspended from his high school.

The problem with the O’Mara strategy, however, is not only that the judge has ruled against allowing such information to be a part of the opening arguments. The larger problem is the fact that it is George Zimmerman and not Trayvon Martin who will be on trial in the Seminole County Court.

And there are questions about Zimmerman’s character and temperament what will be central to the case. His life is a history with its own unflattering and sordid episodes. It was Zimmerman, after all, who pursued the teenager after being advised by a law-enforcement official by phone not to do so. It was Zimmerman who routinely made disparaging remarks about African-Americans, a witness said. It was Zimmerman who had a previous incident in which he was arrested for assaulting a police officer, even though the charges were dropped.

It is expected that lawyers for a man who is fighting second-degree murder charges would do anything to keep their client out of jail. But in their case, the methods have amounted to little more than unprincipled chicanery.

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(Photo: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

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