As the general public became fascinated with the Trayvon Martin/ George Zimmerman case in Florida, we at Juarez and Schaeffer couldn't help but monitor closely the goings on from a legal perspective. Now that the jury has handed down its verdict, we would like to analyze the case and provide students and others in the field with some helpful tips. Of course, we analyze everything as though it the events took place in the Southern District of California and, while, we believe that the prosecution made many mistakes in its presentation of the case, we pass no judgment on the validity of the jury's decision.
1) Presenting the Facts
When presenting their version of the facts of the case in opening argument, a litigator must lay a clear groundwork including a plausible theory of how the events transpired the way that they did and why the jury should accept this version. In the Trayvon Martin case, the prosecution, after a blistering opening sentence, failed to adequately paint a picture of their version of events. It needed to be clear, concise and, most importantly, allow the jury to see the facts through the prosecution's prism.
Since the jury was made up entirely of women, it should not have been difficult to paint a picture where George Zimmerman is the lurking and dangerous stalker that all women are wary of. This picture should have allowed the women of the jury to put themselves in Trayvon's shoes as an armed man followed him home. Instead, the prosecution decided to focus on race which, while stimulating the media, muddled the overall picture of the initial confrontation and forced the jury to ask whether or not Zimmerman was a racist. By forcing the jury to decide whether or not Zimmerman was a racist, the prosecution forced the jury to take their eye off the crucial facts surrounding the initial confrontation.
2) Know your Role
A good attorney needs to know the rules of law and evidence in order to hold the opposing party in check. If the attorney does not know a problem when they hear one, then there exists an opportunity to make huge mistakes simply by inaction. For example, during final argument, the Zimmerman defense team told the jury that the charges against Zimmerman could not be proven because the prosecution could not prove that Zimmerman was not afraid for his life. In California, this is called burden shifting and is not permissible so long as an objection is made.
The Zimmerman defense team's entire theory was that Zimmerman had used his weapon in self defense because he feared for his life. Self defense is an affirmative defense and the burden of proving the facts are on the defense and not the prosecution. This should have caused an immediate objection and a correction from the judge in front of the jury. Since Zimmerman did not testify, and all statements heard by the jury from Zimmerman were not given under oath, it would be impossible for the Defense team to prove their affirmative defense. Allowing the other side to shift this burden forced the prosecution into an impossible position of proving Zimmerman's internal feelings at the moment lethal force was used.
3) Work with the Evidence and Pick your Battles
Every case has a different set of facts that a lawyer must work with to convince a jury that their version of events is the right version. Because cases like this are so complex with many different moving parts, it is important to work with the evidence, as opposed to against it, and highlight the good facts while minimizing the negative ones.
In the Zimmerman case, the prosecution argued against what seemed like strong evidence that Trayvon was on top of Zimmerman at the moment the shot was fired. Witness testimony from neighbors as well as the physical evidence corroborated Zimmerman's story that he was taking a beating prior to shooting Trayvon. By arguing this point the prosecution did two things: 1) they forced the jury to see this aspect of Zimmerman's story as truthful, lending credibility to his overall story and 2) they allowed this potentially insignificant point to overshadow the crucial element to the charges, i.e. the fact that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, following Trayvon through the complex until a confrontation erupted.
The charges against Zimmerman hinged upon proving he was the initial aggressor. In California, self defense cannot be claimed by an initial aggressor unless they unequivocally retreat. By his own statements, Zimmerman was the initial aggressor and it would have been impossible to show a retreat unless Zimmerman took the stand.
In the end, I believe the prosecution made some pretty big errors in judgment, potentially affecting the outcome.