Trayvon Martin Case: Zimmerman Builds His Defense

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

Reuters

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.

So many questions! If Zimmerman was injured as badly as his lawyer says, then it's time to see what the hospital records say about his treatment. Were his wounds consistent with a deadly battle? Were there any injuries to Martin's body, other than the fatal wound, that would suggest that such a sustained fight occurred? And what did Sonner mean, exactly, when he told Cooper that "it took too long to get to the hospital"? When was Zimmerman treated?

How did the police view Zimmerman's alleged injuries that night? Was their evaluation of Zimmerman reasonable? This is vital, remember, because Florida law doesn't automatically allow a person to lawfully kill another person in self-defense just because the two are involved in a fistfight. The person who pulls the trigger has to feel it is "reasonably" necessary to prevent "death or great bodily harm." A broken nose may not cut it. A blow to the head might.

(Not for nothing, it's important to remember that all this political and legal talk, in Florida and elsewhere, about revising the state's controversial "justifiable homicide" law would have absolutely no impact upon the Zimmerman case. He'll be evaluated based solely on how the law read and was interpreted on February 26 and not by how the law may be changed in the future).

If there was a fight between Martin and Zimmerman, and if the evidence suggests that it was a serious one, it will be awfully difficult for prosecutors in good faith to indict Zimmerman for murder. It will also make it impossible for federal investigators to label this as a "hate crime." What's left, then, is a civil lawsuit filed by Martin's family against Zimmerman -- and, Crump now suggests, perhaps against the (deeper pockets) homeowners association as well.

The homeowners association? What? At the same time that Sonner was trying to rehabilitate Zimmerman, the Martin family attorney, Ben Crump, was suggesting that Zimmerman's homeowners association may have some civil liability here because it reportedly encouraged residents to coordinate their "neighbor watch" concerns with Zimmerman. Crump would have to prove that this was negligence. Good luck with that -- and bring on the depositions!

Thus we have now entered the two-track phase of a high-profile case. The first track is the official one -- undertaken largely in private -- where new investigators are sorting out exactly what happened. The second track is the unofficial one -- played out in public view -- where the lawyers are spinning information for the tactical and strategic benefit of their clients. What can the rest of us do? Take what we now hear with skepticism. And wait for more facts to emerge.

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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, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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