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Judge denies delay, bars evidence in George Zimmerman trial — for now

A Florida judge ruled Tuesday that George Zimmerman’s defense team cannot mention Trayvon Martin’s suspension from school, prior marijuana use, text messages or past fighting during opening statements at next month’s trial.

Judge Debra Nelson said that during the trial she will consider motions to admit details as evidence on a case-by-case basis, outside the presence of jurors who will decide if Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Martin.

Capping a slew of rulings on pre-trial motions, Nelson rejected a defense request for a trial delay and ruled that jury selection will begin June 10.

"This case has dragged on long enough," prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said in arguing for the trial to start as scheduled.

Over the course of two hours, Nelson granted numerous motions by prosecutors, who argued that details of the slain teen’s past are not be relevant to the Feb. 26, 2012, confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin and should not be discussed before the jury.

Defense lawyer Mark O’Mara asked the judge not to pre-emptively exclude the information, saying that it bolstered their theory of the shooting – that the 17-year-old was the aggressor and Zimmerman shot him in self-defense.

“There is certainly enough evidence…that’s going to suggest Trayvon Martin involved himself ongoingly with fighting with other people,” O’Mara said.

He said the defense had obtained video of three fights – two in which Martin acted as a referee and a third in which two friends “were beating up a homeless guy.” The defense also wanted the right to present text messages, like one from November 2011 in which Martin seemed to refer to an organized fight: "He got mo hits cause in da 1st round. He had me on da ground nd I couldn’t do ntn."

Prosecutors argued that since Zimmerman and Martin didn’t know each other before the shooting, whether the teen had been involved in fights had no bearing on how the defendant reacted that night.

The judge ruled that the evidence about past fights could not be mentioned in opening statements but said it could be admitted during trial if the defense can authenticate it and overcome rules against hearsay evidence.

She said she may let the jury hear that Martin had a marijuana ingredient in his blood the night of the shooting after she hears from experts about the toxicology tests that were performed. The defense and prosecution disagree about whether the results show the teen had smoked pot before he and Zimmerman crossed paths.

Outside the Seminole County courthouse, Martin family lawyer Benjamin Crump praised the judge for limiting what the jury hears about guns, drugs or fighting in Martin’s past.

“Trayvon Martin did not have a gun. Trayvon Martin did not get out of the car to chase anybody. Trayvon Martin did not shoot and kill anybody. Trayvon Martin is not on trial,” Crump said.

The two parties will be back in court before the trial starts for more hearings, including one that will examine whether prosecutors withheld evidence from the defense.

Zimmerman’s team put an outside lawyer on the stand, Wesley White, who testified that photos from Martin’s cellphone were never shared with them. White, who resigned as a state prosecutor in December and is now in private practice, represents the state attorney’s office’s information-technology director, Ben Kruidbos,  who will be called to testify June 6 about the allegedly withheld images.

White told NBC News that Kruidbos was placed on administrative leave Tuesday and considers himself a “whistleblower” under Florida law. Kruidbos was grilled by staff in the state attorney’s office twice, either to learn what he planned to testify about or possibly to “bully him,” White told NBC.

The state attorney's office has not responded to a request for comment from NBC News.

In other rulings, Nelson decided the jury will not be sequestered as the defense wanted but will be referred to by number, not name, during the selection process.

She also decided against bringing jurors to the place where Martin was killed, calling it a “logistical nightmare” and noting that it seemed to fly in the face of the defense request that the panel be kept under wraps.

Zimmerman – who was not in court Tuesday -- has pleaded not guilty. He told police he resorted to self-defense after Martin punched him and beat his head to the ground after the two encountered each other in a gated community.

Robert Zimmerman Jr. read a statement to the media after the hearing in which he described his younger brother as a civic-minded crime fighter who became his “staunchest advocate” after he came out as gay more than a decade ago.

The brother blasted the state special prosecutor for bringing a murder case against Zimmerman after he was not charged by Sanford police.

“The politics of race trumped the rule of law and a political calculation was made,” Robert Zimmerman said. “It was the wrong decision.”

Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal for defamation in civil court, and the company has strongly denied his allegations.  This story includes a statement from Lawyer Mark O’Mara which he now says was not accurate. For his apology, see here.

 

 

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