The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

July 2, 2013

Judge strikes detective statements on Zimmerman


Associated Press

— SANFORD, Fla. (AP) — A prosecutor in George Zimmerman's murder trial on Tuesday tried to pick apart the statements of a Sanford Police detective who was called as a prosecution witness a day before but gave testimony that seemed to benefit the defense.

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda asked the judge to strike from the record a statement Detective Chris Serino made Monday in which he said he found credible Zimmerman's account of how he got into a fight with Trayvon Martin.

De la Rionda argued the statement was improper because one witness isn't allowed to give an opinion on the credibility of another witness. Defense attorney Mark O'Mara argued it was proper because Serino was vetting Zimmerman's veracity in his probe.

Judge Debra Nelson told jurors to disregard the statement.

"This is an improper comment," the judge said.

De la Rionda then questioned Serino about his opinion given Monday that he didn't believe Zimmerman displayed any ill will or spite to Martin. Prosecutors must prove there was ill will, spite or a depraved mind by the defendant to get a second-degree murder conviction.

The prosecutor played back a police call Zimmerman had made to report Martin in the neighborhood: Zimmerman uses an expletive, refers to "punks" and then says, "These a-------. They always get away." The prosecutor asked the investigator if those words showed some spite, and Serino conceded it could be construed that way.

Next, de la Rionda challenged Serino's contention that he found Zimmerman's story without major inconsistencies. The prosecutor played back Zimmerman's police interview in which investigators question Zimmerman about small differences in the neighborhood volunteer's story. The prosecutor also pointed out Zimmerman claimed that after he shot Martin, he spread out the teen's arms. But a photo taken immediately after the shooting shows Martin's arms under his body.

"Is that inconsistent with the defendant's statement he spread the arms out?" de la Rionda asked.

"That position, yes it is," Serino said.

But under cross examination, Serino said Zimmerman's description of Martin's body position was consistent with the medical examiner's report.

Later, in response to Serino's cross-examination testimony that he'd seen a convenience store video that showed Martin in a hooded sweatshirt, de la Rionda asked, "Are you saying in Seminole County, it's illegal for someone to wear a hoodie at night?"

"No sir. I'm not," Serino said.

It was Serino's second day on the witness stand. He and another investigator, Doris Singleton, testified Monday about their investigation as jurors heard a series of police interviews in which the detectives grew more pointed in their questioning.

In an early interview, just hours after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting, Singleton recounted that Zimmerman noticed a cross she was wearing and said: "In Catholic religion, it's always wrong to kill someone."

Singleton said she responded, "If what you're telling me is true, I don't think that what God meant was that you couldn't save your own life."

But in an interview days later, Singleton and Serino suggest that Zimmerman was running after Martin before the confrontation. They also ask Zimmerman why he didn't explain to Martin why he was following him. The officers insinuate that Martin may have been "creeped out" by being followed.

"Do you think he was scared?" Singleton asked Zimmerman in one video interview.

Under cross-examination, though, Serino said Zimmerman seemed straightforward in his answers and didn't show any anger when talking about Martin. Serino said the increasingly pointed questioning is a tactic known as a "challenge interview," where detectives try to break someone's story to make sure they're telling the truth.

Late in the morning the prosecution called Mark Osterman, a federal air marshal who described Zimmerman as "the best friend I've ever had."

He testified that he spoke with Zimmerman both the night of and the day after the shooting. Osterman later wrote a book about his recollections of what Zimmerman told him.

Under examination by De la Rionda, Osterman said that Zimmerman told him Martin had grabbed his gun during their struggle, but that Zimmerman was able to pull it away.

That account is different from what Zimmerman told investigators in multiple interviews when he only said it appeared Martin was reaching for his gun prior to the shooting. He never told police the teen grabbed it.

"I thought he had said he grabbed the gun," Osterman said. "I believe he said he grabbed the gun."

Zimmerman has said he fatally shot the unarmed black teen in self-defense in February, 2012, because he says Martin was banging his head into a concrete sidewalk behind townhomes in a gated community. Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.

The state argued during its opening statement that Zimmerman profiled and followed Martin in his truck and called a police dispatch number before he and the teenager got into a fight. Zimmerman has denied the confrontation had anything to do with race, as Martin's family and their supporters have claimed. A 44-day delay in Zimmerman's arrest led to protests around the nation; he was ultimately charged by a Florida special prosecutor. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is Hispanic.