Commentary: An Absorbing Start to the Zimmerman Trial

With opening statements now done, the trial of Trayvon Martin’s shooter is underway, and it needs to remain principled.

Posted: 06/24/2013 05:16 PM EDT

Defense attorney Don West. (Photo: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images)

With the opening arguments now done, the trial of George Zimmerman is at last underway. The main event is moving ahead at full throttle speed with courtroom maneuvering aplenty. The stakes are high. For many Americans, the case will serve as a highly emotional litmus test of the position of racial justice in the age of Obama.

Against that backdrop, the lawyers defending Zimmerman got off to a start that was as unnerving as it was tone deaf.

“Knock, knock,” began Zimmerman’s attorney, Don West. “Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? All right, good. You’re on the jury.” It fell flat with many in the courtroom looking aghast at the attempted humor.

If there were any event where it would be the height of inappropriateness to start with a tasteless joke, the second-degree murder trial in the death of Trayvon Martin certainly would be the one. The defense lawyers later apologized, succumbing to a wave of indignation that had already registered in volumes in the world of cyberspace. It was part of a lengthy, two-hour presentation that was far from riveting.

Who thought this was a great idea? Perhaps Zimmerman’s lawyers were feeling cocky. After all, they surely felt encouraged by the selection of a jury of six women, five of them white and one Hispanic from a conservative Florida county, not a demographic known for a harboring great camaraderie with African-American teenage boys wearing hoodies.

They may have even felt self-assured by the ruling of Judge Debra S. Nelson, barring prosecution voice experts who were prepared to testify that the voice on the 911 recordings pleading for his life belonged to Trayvon Martin. After all, a jury who was told that it was Trayvon Martin making the screaming pleas that preceded the sound of gunshot would certainly see Zimmerman in the harshest light possible.

If indeed there is any degree of smugness on the part of Mark O’Mara and the rest of Zimmerman’s legal team, this was certainly not the time to put it on public display. If nothing else, this is a time for sober, reasoned arguments in a case that has attracted worldwide attention as a test for where America now stands with regard to racial fairness.

Zimmerman is facing second-degree murder charges in the death of an unarmed African-American Miami teenager who was visiting the home of his father’s girlfriend. To many Americans, not all of them Black, the incident conjures a history of troubling confrontation where African-Americans were brutally victimized.

For its part, the prosecution opened their first volley of the trial with arguments that correctly presented the full gravity and horror of the interaction between two people on a dark February evening in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. In about 30 minutes, the prosecution brialliantly brought to the jury the picture of the scene, with its offensive language and the very words of George Zimmerman.

“George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to,” said John Guy, one of the prosecution attorneys. “He shot him for the worst of all reasons – because he wanted to.”

There is, of course, a great deal more to come in what will surely be a trial with no shortage of dramatic moments. The hope is that the legal discussions and wrangling will remain professional and highly principled. For things to go otherwise would be a travesty to the highly sensitive nature of the foundations of the trial, but a grievous tragedy to the family and memory of Trayvon Martin.

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