George Zimmerman, the defendant in the murder of Trayvon Martin, waived his right to seek immunity under Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law before his June trial. NBC's Kerry Sanders reports.
By choosing not to invoke the Florida law known as “stand your ground” before his trial, George Zimmerman took a gamble — passing up the chance to have a judge dismiss his second-degree murder charge before it ever gets before a jury.
His lawyers said they want a jury to decide the case, concerning the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin last year, because it has taken on enormous national significance.
But one legal expert said the move was carefully calibrated in another way, too.
Under the law, which broadens the right to self-defense for people who feel threatened outside their homes, a defendant can ask the judge to grant criminal immunity before a case goes to trial. Zimmerman had that chance Tuesday and declined it.
The risk in pursuing immunity at this point, NBC News legal analyst Kendall Coffey said, is that Zimmerman could have lost before the judge, creating a strike against him in the minds of potential jurors who are following the case. And in the Trayvon Martin case, which goes to trial June 10, finding an impartial jury will be a monumental task as it is.
Zimmerman’s lawyers said it could take as long as three weeks.
“There would be considerable risk that, no matter how you tried to deal with it during jury selection, you’d get some jurors that would know that the judge had already rejected the self-defense claim,” said Coffey, a former federal prosecutor.
The decision not to ask for an immunity hearing, which Zimmerman announced while standing in a Sanford, Fla., courtroom and answering Judge Debra Nelson in a soft-spoken voice, applies only before trial.Coffey still expects “stand your ground” to be the linchpin of Zimmerman’s defense once the trial begins.
The law says people do not have to retreat if they believe they are in imminent danger of being killed or badly injured outside their homes.
Zimmerman maintains he was acting in self-defense on Feb. 26, 2012, when he shot Martin to death, and he has pleaded not guilty. He says Martin, 17, attacked him first. The case made national news and inflamed racial tensions. Zimmerman is a former neighborhood watch volunteer of white and Hispanic descent.
Joe Burbank / Pool / Reuters
George Zimmerman, defendant in the killing of Trayvon Martin, stands in court in Sanford, Fla., with his attorney Mark O'Mara.
Mark O’Mara, a lawyer for Zimmerman, told reporters that not seeking immunity was “a tactical decision” but said the main reason was that the case has become about much more than what happened that night.
“George wants this case before a jury of his peers. That’s where he’s going to get acquitted,” O’Mara told reporters after the hearing. “Then maybe the country will listen to that better than they would listen to a judge.”
Prosecutors had urged the judge to demand an answer from Zimmerman on whether he would waive the right to a “stand your ground” hearing before trial. Lawyers for Martin’s family said after the hearing that they were pleased because it’s clear that the case is moving toward trial.
The defense could even try for immunity under “stand your ground” after a criminal conviction. But asking a judge to overturn a jury’s guilty verdict would be a long shot, Coffey said.
Already, there are signs of skirmishes between the two sides in the criminal case. The defense says prosecutors have hidden information and caused unnecessary delays in the evidence-swapping portion of pretrial motions known as discovery.
And the judge scolded lawyers for the state and the defense Tuesday after O’Mara complained about a pretrial motion in which prosecutors said the lead defense attorney “courts anything resembling a microphone or camera.”
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda said the motion speaks for itself. O’Mara said the high public interest in the case means lawyers should be on their best behavior, to add credibility to whatever the verdict is.
The judge declined to strike the personal remarks from the record but warned both sides that unprofessional behavior by lawyers “will not be tolerated in the future.”
Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal for defamation in civil court, and the company has strongly denied his allegations.
This story was originally published on Tue Apr 30, 2013 4:48 PM EDT