Prosecutors in the case against George Zimmerman were not prepared for what hit them on Friday.
Apparently expecting a routine hearing about whether the man accused of killing unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin was too dangerous to be released on bond, they quickly discovered the matter was going to be anything but routine.The first surprise came when the judge allowed defense attorney Mark O’Mara to pepper one of the law enforcement investigators with tough questions about what evidence was used to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 killing.
The second was when Zimmerman, 28, himself took to the witness stand to offer an unexpected apology to the family of the 17-year-old he killed.
The result was that the defense was able to paint the case against Zimmerman as one that was full of holes and also convince the Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. to order him freed on bond as he awaits trial.
“I didn’t know we’d be trying the case,” prosecutor Bernie De La Rionda, apparently exasperated, said during the hearing.
Zimmerman’s defense hinges on his claim that he shot Martin in self defense. He has claimed that he was attacked by Martin during a run-in at the gated community in Sanford, Fla., where Zimmerman lived and Martin was visiting. O’Mara did most of his damage on Friday when he was allowed to grill Dale Gilbreath, an investigator for the state attorney’s office.
Gilbreath and another investigator, T.C. O’Steen, were the two people whose names appeared on the bottom of the April 11 sworn affidavit prosecutors used to bring the murder charge.
The affidavit laid out the facts of what authorities believed happened the night of the shooting. The affidavit clearly showed that prosecutors weren’t buying Zimmerman’s story that he shot Martin in self defense.
But as soon as Gilbreath took the stand, he admitted he hadn’t brought any evidence or supporting documents with him to court that morning. He didn’t expect he’d need it.
“I was not planning on testifying,” he said.
The defense attorney spent some of the time focusing on a single sentence from the affidavit, which said: “Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued.”
The attorney wanted to know what evidence Gilbreath had to prove that Zimmerman was the one who initiated the confrontation. The investigator revealed he didn’t have any evidence that hadn’t already been made public. He said relied on two things.
The first was the 911 call that Zimmerman made before he killed Martin. In it, Zimmerman can be heard saying that he saw a “suspicious” person walking through the neighborhood. He said in the phone call that he was following the person, but he hung up before any confrontation took place. From the call, it wasn’t clear whether Zimmerman continued following Martin or had stopped.
The second was an interview investigators conducted with one of Martin’s friends five weeks after the shooting. The teenage girl revealed that she was on the phone with Martin when he was walking through the neighborhood that night and that she heard him being confronted by somebody. The call, however, went dead after she heard what she said she believed was the start of a scuffle.
O’Mara attacked the investigator, saying there was nothing about either of those things that proved Zimmerman was the one who initiated the struggle.
“You have nothing to support the confrontation suggestion?” he said.
Gilbreath struggled at first and finally replied.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I’ve answered the question.”
The next major surprise came when O’Mara called his own client to the stand. Dressed in a suit but shackled at the wrists, Zimmerman appeared calm. His attorney gave him the floor. Zimmerman looked out at the crowded courtroom.
“I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son,” Zimmerman said. “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. And I did not know if he was armed or not.”
De La Rionda, sounding a little surprised, was allowed to question Zimmerman a few moments later.
“And I’m sorry, sir. You’re not really addressing that to the court. You’re doing it here to the victim’s family, is that correct?” the prosecutor said.
“They are here in the court, yes,” Zimmerman said.
“I understand, but I thought you were going to address your honor, Judge Lester, not — ” He paused. “So that’s really addressed to the family and where the media happens to be. Is that correct, Mr. Zimmerman?”
“No, to the mother and the father,” Zimmerman said.
Far from comforting Martin’s parents, who were seated in the courtroom, the awkward moment seemed to rattle Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. After the hearing was over, their attorney, Benjamin Crump, said the family didn’t believe the apology was sincere.
“All throughout the hearing, Tracy Martin had tears in his eyes as he watched the killer of his son,” Crump said outside the court. “And it was devastating that he got to give a self serving apology to help him get a bond. They were outraged about that.”
But whether it was sincere or not, it didn’t stop the judge from granting Zimmerman a $150,000 bond. Prosecutors had asked for him to be held in jail until his trial or else force him to post a $1 million bond to be set free. But the judge disagreed.
Lester ruled Zimmerman will have to submit to electronic monitoring and will be forbidden from drinking alcohol or having contact with any firearms, but he will be a free man.
Zimmerman’s attorney said afterward that he expects his client to post the bond in a matter of days.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org