MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to turn to a case that's captured the attention of many people in this country. It's the trial of George Zimmerman. He's the self-appointed neighborhood volunteer who fatally shot the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin back in February of 2012. Zimmerman's trial on charges of second degree murder is set to begin June 10, but there was some preliminary business yesterday, including a request by the defense to delay the trial once again.
Florida Circuit Judge Debra Nelson denied that request and ruled on a number of other motions by the defense team. Rene Stutzman joins us now to talk more about that and other developments. She's been reporting on this case for the Orlando Sentinel, and she's with us now. Rene, welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
RENE STUTZMAN: Thank you for inviting me.
MARTIN: What was the purpose of yesterday's hearing overall?
STUTZMAN: Well, yesterday in a general sense was let's take care of business. Attorneys on both sides of this case, for the state and the defense, had filed a whole bunch of motions, things that had to be resolved before the trial begins. The judge, tick by tock, went through several of them, more than a dozen, during a two-hour hearing, and resolved many of the issues. Some will have to be resolved later during the trial.
MARTIN: I understand that the main focus of the hearing, besides setting the trial date for good was to rule on some evidence that the defense wanted to include in their argument. Can you talk a little bit about that? What evidence did they want to include, and what did the judge decide?
STUTZMAN: The defense wants to portray Trayvon Martin as a young man who used marijuana; a young man who was trying to find a gun, not necessarily that night, but in his life; someone who was aggressive. The state says no, not relevant. Judge, you need to confine the evidence that comes in to things germane to the confrontation between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin the night Trayvon was shot. So much of yesterday's hearing was spent on back and forth about whether those pieces of evidence can come in. And the judge was slightly ambiguous in response on some of those things. Some of those things she banned outright.
MARTIN: Like what? What evidence cannot now be put before the jury?
STUTZMAN: She said there will be no evidence admitted about Trayvon Martin's prior marijuana use. But Trayvon Martin tested positive - after his autopsy there, was a blood draw, and chemists found marijuana in his system. The judge said, defense, during opening statement, you can't make reference to that. But during the trial, when the state's expert on pharmacy matters comes to the stand, I'm going to ask the jury to leave, and I'm going to listen to what he has to say about the effect that level of marijuana in someone's system would have on a person's behavior.
(technical difficulties) she would decide then whether to admit evidence that there was marijuana in Trayvon's system when he was shot.
MARTIN: What about the family of Trayvon Martin? I mean, technically, they are not a party to this matter. I mean, this is a matter between the state and George Zimmerman, but they've been very vocal about this from the beginning. Were they heard on this?
STUTZMAN: Trayvon's mother was in the courtroom, and three family attorneys were in the courtroom. And afterward, they didn't speak specifically to evidence, and they said we're not going to let Sabrina Fulton, Trayvon's mom, answer questions. And we're not going to let her answer questions, because she's been listed as a witness in the trial. She may testify.
But the lawyers and Trayvon's family have consistently said that reputation-damaging information about their son is character assassination. It's unfair to their son that he was a 17-year-old who had no gun, who had committed no crime, who was somewhere he was entitled to be and was shot for no good reason.
MARTIN: Now, the defense has already made this information available to the public, correct?
MARTIN: So is there some concern now that the jury pool is tainted by this? That this information's already out there, so that even if the judge ruled that it can't be brought in, it's already out there.
STUTZMAN: Indeed, there is concern. And I'm sure state attorneys have a lot of concern about that. A couple of points: Number one, last spring, before Zimmerman was arrested, there was an enormous amount of information made public. And when he was arrested, more information made public about what happened that night.
When a special persecutor was appointed and she handed over evidence to the defense, even more information made public. Some of that - especially when the state makes its evidence available to the defense, that's a natural process, and much of that evidence is public, which means anybody that asks for it should be able to get it and look at it. So that, I don't think, is corrupting.
The defense, last week, did what's called reciprocal discovery. They gave to the state the evidence that they say they may put on. Now, that's required by criminal procedure here, but O'Mara's office made public those things. He didn't just hand it over to the state. He's got a website, and he made it available to anybody who wants to look at it. Would it taint the jury pool? There certainly is that potential.
When judges question potential jurors, one of the things they say is: Will you be able to decide this case and reach a verdict based solely on the information that comes to you from inside this courtroom? Yes, maybe you've seen something in the news. Will you be able to set that aside? Potential jurors say yes, and some say no, and that's a culling process. So we'll see in the jury selection process what happens.
MARTIN: The whole question one often hears, you know, concerns about trying a case in the media, but it seems like both sides have been very actively courting public opinion, if I can put it that way. I'm curious about whether either side feels they have the advantage here now in the court of public opinion? Is either side more concerned about this than the other, from what you can see?
STUTZMAN: You know, I can't balance and say one side is more concerned than the other. I can tell you there are obvious signs that each is concerned. Yesterday, the state asked for a gag order, the third time. They want Mark O'Mara to stop talking to people about the case and about the evidence.
MARTIN: Mark O'Mara being George Zimmerman's attorney.
STUTZMAN: That's right. They want the defense to stop talking publically about the case. So three attempts at a gag order, that tells me they're very annoyed and they want that to stop. And George Zimmerman has an older brother, Robert Zimmerman, Jr., who's become a spokesman for the family. After yesterday's hearing, he told reporters he thinks the charge - the second degree murder charge - is unfair and that the state, right now, should drop the case, that early on, the media reported a false narrative.
So both sides are complaining about the impression offered by the other.
MARTIN: There's another hearing set for next week, when Judge Nelson is said to rule on other key evidence. Do you happen to know what the subject of that hearing will be?
STUTZMAN: Next Thursday and maybe Friday, there'll be another hearing in this case, and it could be very impactful. The state and the defense have both hired audio experts. There's a piece of 911 audio from the night of the shooting. A woman is calling police to say there are two people outside, and they're making noise and there's a fight. And in the background, you can hear cries for help and eventually a gunshot.
The state recently disclosed it has an audio expert who heard certain things in the background of that audio, things that no one else has previously disclosed having heard. He says he heard Trayvon say: I'm begging you. And he says he heard George Zimmerman using evangelical-like language and speaking stylistically, almost as if he were on some sort of holy mission in what he was doing that night.
His name is Alan Reich and on Thursday and if time need be, on Friday, the judge will hold a hearing to determine whether what Alan Reich did in analyzing the tape and the scientific methods he used are valid and things that can be trusted to be put in front of a jury.
MARTIN: Rene Stutzman is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. She joined us from member station WMFE, which is in Orlando, Florida. Rene, thank you so much for speaking with us.
STUTZMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.