With opening statements in the George Zimmerman murder case just days away, the judge in the case ruled that prosecutors can use words like “vigilante” or “wannabe cop,” but cannot say that Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch volunteer, racially profiled Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot to death last year in Florida.
Judge Debra S. Nelson on Friday ruled against the defense, which wanted to bar some terms it considered inflammatory. The ruling allows the prosecution to use the word profile, but only if the idea of race is not included. The prosecution can say, for example, that Zimmerman, 29, profiled Martin if the statement involved factors like age or clothing, but not race.
The ruling comes ahead of opening statements set to begin before a jury of six women on Monday. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of Martin, 17, on Feb. 26, 2012. Zimmerman argues that he acted in self-defense while the prosecution maintains that Zimmerman profiled the teenager, leading to a confrontation on the rainy night when Martin was shot to death.
Zimmerman was not charged on the night of the shooting, but demonstrations by civil rights leaders across the country led to the appointment of a special prosecutor who brought the second-degree murder charges on April 11, 2012. Zimmerman identifies himself as a Latino.
The defense maintains that race or ethnicity was not an issue in the shooting and had sought to prevent the prosecution from using the word profile. Defense attorney Mark O'Mara argued that he was worried that the word would “infect” the jury.
“I want to be very, very cautious,” O'Mara said.
But one of the prosecutors, John Guy, argued that there were a number of ways someone could be profiled.
“That is not a racially charged term unless it's made so, and we don't intend to make it a racially charged term,” Guy said. “There are a number of avenues someone can be profiled in any one way or combination. We don't intend to say he was solely profiled because of race.”
O'Mara countered that profiling and racial profiling are unavoidably linked. “It's like peanut butter and jelly,” he said.
But the judge said that O'Mara can come back on the issue in closing arguments. “If they [prosecutors] don't prove it, they don't prove it,” the judge said.
Nelson said on Friday she would not rule on the other major pretrial issue: whether to allow testimony about a 911 call from a neighbor on the night of the confrontation. A scream is heard in the background, but the parties disagree about who is crying for help, Martin or Zimmerman.
The defense is seeking to block the tape, arguing that the science of such identifications is not reliable.