Credibility may prove key in George Zimmerman case
By Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner, Orlando Sentinel
6:53 p.m. EST, June 4, 2012
It is clear from court and public records that George Zimmerman has sometimes been less than truthful.
After shooting Trayvon Martin in late February, he told Sanford police he didn't have a criminal history. He did. Several weeks later, he told the Seminole County Sheriff's Office he had never been in a pretrial-diversion program. That's also untrue.
He contradicted himself on the witness stand in April, telling Trayvon's family during an apology that he had thought their son was close to his age. On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman, 28, described the 17-year-old to police as in his "late teens."
And now Zimmerman is back in jail because he sat silently as his wife, Shellie, testified — under oath — at his bond hearing in April that the couple were, essentially, flat broke. At the time, they had access to about $135,000, funds raised through a website he launched after he shot Trayvon.
Given that Zimmerman is the only surviving witness to the moments before the fatal shot, his credibility is important, experts say.
"Credibility is always a paramount issue in any trial," said Douglas Keene, a trial consultant and forensic psychologist based in Austin, Texas. In a self-defense case, he said, a jury must decide "whether or not someone can be trusted to have used good judgment."
If the Zimmerman case goes to trial, Keene said jurors will have to choose between competing narratives: Was George Zimmerman a vigilante profiling an unarmed teen? Or was he a concerned citizen trying to prevent crime in his community?
Zimmerman's self-defense claim may rest on whether jurors trust him "as a reporter of the facts," Keene said.
Many have speculated that the case won't get to trial but, rather, could be settled at an immunity hearing under Florida's stand-your-ground law, which allows deadly force to prevent death or serious injury.
If such a hearing takes place, the outcome would be in the hands of Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester — the same judge who just determined Zimmerman was deceitful and threw him back in jail.
"Judge Lester would have to find by a preponderance of the evidence that Mr. Zimmerman was justified in doing what he did," said Orlando defense attorney Andrew Moses. "The reality is, we're all human, and clearly the reality is that Judge Lester believes that he was not truthful" at the bond hearing.
Michael Grieco, a South Florida defense attorney and former Miami-Dade prosecutor, said Zimmerman may have hurt his credibility with the judge, but his silence at that bond hearing should not be a factor at trial.
"It's not going to become part of the case," Grieco said.
That's because before prosecutors could use Zimmerman's behavior at the hearing against him, they'd have to prove it's relevant. The Zimmermans' finances, Grieco said, have nothing to do with happened on the drizzly, dark evening when the Neighborhood Watch volunteer killed the Miami Gardens teenager.
In a blog post Monday, defense attorney Mark O'Mara wrote that Zimmerman "acknowledges that he allowed his financial situation to be misstated in court. … We feel the failure to disclose these funds was caused by fear, mistrust and confusion ...
"Mr. Zimmerman understands that this mistake has undermined his credibility, which he will have to work to repair," O'Mara wrote. He said would ask for a new bond hearing, but that won't happen this week. A courts spokeswoman said the judge is unavailable due to a "planned absence."
Zimmerman cooperated with Sanford police during their investigation, agreeing to five interviews and re-enacting what he says happened, but police said afterward that they doubted some of his statements, for example that before he shot Trayvon, the teenager had put his hand over Zimmerman's mouth.
If that were the case, police said, the cries for help in the background of one 911 call would be muffled.
Whether all the details he provided police were the truth, Zimmerman passed a voice-stress test, something similar to a lie-detector test, conducted by Sanford police Investigator William Ervin.
Authorities have not released its results.
At the April 20 bond hearing, Investigator Dale Gilbreath testified that Zimmerman's version of events was inconsistent with other evidence. He did not provide details, and Zimmerman's statements have not yet been firstname.lastname@example.org
or 407-650-67394. email@example.com
Zimmerman's untrue statements
•The night he shot Trayvon Martin to death, police say Zimmerman told them his record was squeaky-clean. In fact, he had been charged in 2005 with resisting arrest without violence during an altercation with a state alcohol officer. Zimmerman wound up in a pretrial-diversion program, a scaled-down version of probation offered to nonviolent first-time offenders.
•When he was booked into the Seminole County Jail on April 23, he told the booking officer that he never had been in a pretrial-diversion program before, documents show.
•At his April 20 bond hearing, while making a surprise apology to Trayvon's family, Zimmerman said he didn't realize Trayvon was so young. In his call to police moments before the shooting, however, he described Trayvon — who was 17 — as in his "late teens."
•At that same hearing, Zimmerman sat silently and did not correct his wife, Shellie, when she, testifying under oath by telephone, said the couple had no savings. At that moment, the couple had at least $135,000 that she had transferred into her credit-union account a few days earlier from a PayPal account that Zimmerman had set up to collect donations.