Trayvon Martin Case: Zimmerman Builds His Defense

As investigators privately try to sort out what happened, lawyers are publicly spinning information for the benefit of their clients.


One month after he shot Trayvon Martin to death, one week after police dispatch tapes revealed that he ignored a warning not to pursue the unarmed teenager, we are beginning to get glimmers of the details of the defense George Zimmerman will likely offer if he's ever charged with murder under Florida law, if he is ever sued by Martin's family in a wrongful death lawsuit, or if he's ever indicted by the Justice Department under a federal hate crime law.

As often occurs in these social wildfire stories, where the emotion and the recrimination and the suspicion and the outrage and the speculation far outpace the public disclosure of material facts, the counter narrative has begun to emerge -- and gain some traction. Craig Sonner, a Florida attorney, has been making the media rounds to deliver the message on behalf of his client. Appearing on CBS News Saturday morning, Sonner said:

I believe that there is sufficient evidence to show that Mr. Zimmerman was acting in self-defense. He has wounds, injuries to his face, to the back of his head. And I think the evidence will show that he was acting in self-defense, and that it was not racially motivated.

To CNN's Anderson Cooper, Sonner was even more explicit. The lawyer told the cable host that Zimmerman's "nose was broken, he sustained injury to his nose and on the back of his head, he sustained a cut that was serious enough to merit stitches, but it took too long to get to the hospital." In the meantime, the venerable Associated Press now is reporting, as wire copy undisputed fact, that "at some point" that deadly night the two men "got into a "fight."

Sonner is doing what lawyers do-- making the best available argument on behalf of his client and trying to shape public opinion in case any of this ever gets to a jury.

Contrast Sonner's story, and the AP's curious certainty, with the sworn affidavit reportedly signed by Martin's girlfriend, who says that she was talking on her cellphone with Martin when Zimmerman attacked him. The young woman reportedly says that Martin was attempting to get away from Zimmerman -- literally running away from a confrontation -- when the older, heavier, armed man cornered him and gunned him down.

On the one hand, Sonner says Zimmerman was bloodied and bruised in his battle with Martin -- the essence of a justifiable homicide defense ('Stand Your Ground" version or otherwise). On the other hand, Martin was a good student with no history of violence, who was carrying nothing more than candy and an iced tea at the time of the incident, and who had no evident motive to attack Zimmerman from behind, from in front or from the side.

Sonner is doing what lawyers do -- making the best available argument on behalf of his client and trying to shape public opinion in case any of this ever gets to a jury. By offering verifiable details, by imprinting Zimmerman's story onto the court of public opinion, he's also making it easier for law enforcement officials (and the media) to figure out what the evidence is and what it proves or disproves. This is a good thing-- no matter what you think may have happened.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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