George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain facing trial in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, has waived his right to seek immunity under Florida‘s ‘stand your ground’ law Tuesday, paving the way for the start of his second-degree murder trial.
In a Florida courtroom Tuesday, Zimmerman stood in front of Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who was singlehandedly tasked with determining whether or not the 29-year-old was within his rights under the Florida statute to shoot and kill the teenager. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty, citing self-defense. While he has waived his right to the immunity hearing, the issue will likely come back up during his second-degree murder trial, commencing in June.
In March, his attorneys made the announcement during an evidence proceeding, but Zimmerman affirmed that motion during questioning by Judge Nelson. Such a proceeding would have absolved Zimmerman of any responsibility in Martin’s February 2012 death, allowing that he reasonably used lethal force to defend himself against a potentially deadly threat. But while on the witness stand in the Sanford, Fla., courtroom, Nelson asked him if he wanted to forgo the hearing. “Is it your decision to not have a pretrial immunity hearing,” she asked, to which Zimmerman responded: “After consultation with my council, yes, your honor.”
Without the pretrial hearing, a countdown has now begun to the anticipated court proceedings, scheduled to begin on June 10 with jury selection. During the criminal trial, Zimmerman’s defense team will likely re-invoke ‘stand your ground’ as part of their strategy. Lead defense attorney Mark O’Mara said that the statute may be brought back up if there is evidence that would help them to that effect, though his team would prefer to put it before an entire jury. “We’d much rather have the jury address the issue of criminal liability or lack thereof,” O’Mara said. Later Tuesday, Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the Martin family, criticized the defense’s effort to “merge” the immunity hearing and the trial, saying it “is very telling of his defense or lack thereof,” Crump said in a statement.
Throughout the hearing, assistant special prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda and Zimmerman’s attorneys sparred over several issues, the most crucial of which revolved around discovery evidence that each side accused the other of failing to turn over. Defense attorney Don West urged Nelson to have the prosecution turn over cell phone records of the 911 call made by a neighbors in the Sanford gated community where the shooting took place, a request that she granted, ordering that both original and enhanced versions of the audio be shared.
That was about as cordial as the hearing got because soon after, the defense accused the prosecution of ethical violations in regard to the mysterious “Witness 8,” allegedly a female friend of Martin’s who was thought to be on the phone with him when Zimmerman confronted the 17-year-old that dark February evening. They maintained that prosecutors held up information that the witness lied about going to the hospital after she found out about Martin’s death, and that his parents’ attorney Crump had been recorded speaking with the girl. Rather than through discovery evidence, the defense wound up learning about it through varied reports, they argued. De La Rionda said it was simply an oversight on his part.
Withholding the evidence, the defense argued, was costly for them. “We will be unprepared for trial because of everything they have done to us and unless you tell them to stop doing it, and to play by the rules they’re supposed to play by,” O’Mara said. Toward the close of today’s hearing, Nelson did not find that any discovery violations took place, but she said she will hold a special hearing on financial compensation that may be due to the defense from prosecutors for the time they spent on the ‘Witness 8’ issue. The next hearing in the trial, Nelson said, would take place May 28.