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Jury's look into Trayvon Martin's past has its limits

Courtesy of Sybrina Fulton

The jury in the George Zimmerman trial may not hear some details about Trayvon Martin, seen here in an undated family photo.

In the 15 months since their deadly altercation, George Zimmerman's and Travyon Martin’s pasts have been under a microscope, but recent court rulings could sharply restrict what a jury hears about any events that took place before their encounter on the fateful night.

Florida Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has declared a number of items off-limits for now to jurors who will decide if Zimmerman, 29, is guilty of second-degree murder in shooting death of Martin, 17.

They include:

  • A photo in which Martin shows his gold teeth to the camera while sticking up his middle fingers.
  • Martin’s school records, which include a suspension from his Miami high school -- less than a month before his altercation with Zimmerman – for possessing a baggie with marijuana residue.
  • Texts and photos from Martin’s cellphone that refer to or show firearms. "U gotta gun?" reads a text from Martin's phone, sent eight days before his death. The defense cited a photo of a hand holding a gun, taken with Martin’s phone, and another picture of a gun on a bed.
  • Texts with marijuana references, and photos that show Martin blowing smoke and what appear to be marijuana plants.
  • Texts and video that suggest that Martin was involved in organized fights.

Prosecutors argued that the information was irrelevant to what happened the night of Feb. 26, 2012, between two strangers who crossed paths in a gated community of Sanford, Fla., and Martin’s family accused the defense of trying to poison the jury pool with an unflattering portrayal of the teen.

After a hearing late last month, Nelson ruled the texts, photos and school records cannot be mentioned in opening statements or while the jury is in the courtroom unless she decides otherwise later.

There are a couple of scenarios under which Nelson might admit the items as evidence, legal analyst Kendall Coffey told NBC News.

Joe Burbank / AP file

In pre-trial hearings, Judge Debra Nelson has ruled that some texts and phone messages from Trayvon Martin's phone won't be seen by the jury — for now.

“If the prosecution through its presentation puts undue emphasis on Trayvon Martin having an impeccable record, or tries to indicate to a jury that he never had a problem with anyone in his life, you can expect the defense to jump up and vigorously demand they be allowed to rebut that,” Coffey said.

As a result, prosecutors are likely to be very cautious in characterizing Martin so they don’t open the door for Zimmerman’s team to bring in evidence that could make the teen look unsavory to jurors. “And the defense is going to be listening with big ears,” Coffey said.

The defense, he said, may have the most luck in getting the allegation that Martin was an experienced fighter before the jury.

“That’s blockbuster stuff, if they can get it into evidence, to suggest Trayvon Martin was a violent young man,” Coffey said. The trick, he said, would be finding someone from Martin’s community who knew him well enough and would be willing to testify on behalf of Zimmerman.

The judge has not yet decided whether the jury can hear that Martin had the active ingredient in marijuana in his system when he was killed, according to the autopsy report. The defense and prosecution disagree on the significance of the amount detected.

At a pre-trial hearing last week, Zimmerman lawyer Mark O’Mara stressed that he only planned to bring up Martin’s past if prosecutors tried to delve into his client’s history. Details O'Mara might not want the jury to hear include:

  • Zimmerman’s 2005 arrest for “resisting officer with violence” and “battery of law enforcement officer” after a confrontation with an officer who was questioning a friend for alleged underage drinking. The charges were reduced to “resisting officer without violence” and then waived when he entered an alcohol education program, according to court documents.
  • A 2005 civil motion filed by Zimmerman’s ex-fiancee for a restraining order alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman counterfiled for a restraining order, and both were granted.

Coffey said the judge will rule on those issues as they arise and said it could depend on whether Zimmerman, who has pleaded not guilty, testifies in his own defense.

“If George Zimmerman gets on the stand and tells his life story as witnesses typically do, a broader category of things about his background are fair game,” he said.

Editor's note: George Zimmerman has sued NBCUniversal for defamation. The company has strongly denied his allegations.

Pool / Pool / Reuters

The trial of George Zimmerman, shown here at a hearing last month, begins Monday with jury selection. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.