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Controversial Evidence in the Zimmerman Trial

| 4 Comments
Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner report for the Orlando Sentinel:

The evidence that George Zimmerman's attorneys have uncovered on Trayvon Martin's cell phone paints a troubling picture of the Miami Gardens teenager: He sent text messages about being a fighter, smoking marijuana and being ordered to move out of his home by his mother.

And photos from that phone offer more of the same: healthy green plants - what appear to be marijuana - growing in pots and a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun.

Defense attorneys on Thursday gave formal notice to prosecutors that they intend to use those and other reputation-damaging pieces of evidence about Trayvon once Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial begins June 10.

Prosecutors say they're not relevant and should be barred.
Florida defines "relevant" in pretty much the usual way.  "Relevant evidence is evidence tending to prove or disprove a material fact."  That is simpler than the Federal Rules of Evidence phrasing, but not really different.  Any probative value that nudges the probability meter one way or the other to any degree is enough to make evidence relevant.

Is this evidence relevant?  It's probative value is certainly quite weak.  Is there any at all?  Doubtful.

4 Comments

Assuming Zimmerman's self-defense strategy is going to be based upon a claim that Martin was the initial aggressor and that his (Zimmerman's) gun use was an objectively reasonable response, given the force that Martin was applying to Zimmerman's head, some of this evidence may be relevant and, depending upon the specifics, its probative value might outweigh any prejudice in terms of stirring up the jury's passion against Martin on a collateral issue. But some of this evidence does not even get over the relevancy hurdle.

Text messages about being a fighter: May be admissible (relevant & FRE 403) on the initial aggressor issue. But need to know what specifically was stated in the text messages; when (in relation to the alleged crime) they were sent; and the context in which Martin was proclaiming (or bragging) about his "fighting" ability?

Smoking Pot: Is there any evidence that MJ or MJ metabolite was found in Martin's blood? If not, I don't see the relevancy. If yes, and if there is additional evidence that Martin became violent when ingesting MJ (instead of nodding out on the sofa with a bag of chips) and/or expert testimony that MJ usage can make a person more prone to violence (you pay an "expert" enough and you can get them to say anything) then may be admissible.

Getting kicked out by mom: For what? If he was the "initial aggressor," and was using pot at the time, and had just sent a text message about his "fighting" exploits, and was armed with his .40 S&W, ... you get the point. But who is going to be the testifying witness? His mom? The same mom that has vigorously defended her son in the media? Put her on the stand as a hostile witness and then impeach her with her statements to the cops about why she had to boot her peace loving son out of the house.

Bottom line: Martin is not the innocent football playing youngster who was simply picking up a candy bar at the local 7-11 when he was brutally, viciously attacked for no reason by a gun-wielding vigilante who was engaged in racial profiling. But we will see what the jury has to say.


Under the Florida rules of evidence, rule 403, admissible to prove conduct in conformity with character is "evidence of a pertinent trait of character of the victim of the crime offered by an accused, or by the prosecution to rebut the trait...."

But the form of proof is by reputation under Florida's 405: "When evidence of the character of a person or of a trait of that person's character is admissible, proof may be made by testimony about that person's reputation."

Specific instances of the victim's conduct would be relevant only if not offered to show conduct in conformity with character, but to show the reasonableness of the defendant's response under the circumstances, which means the defendant would have to have knowledge of those specific acts.

While 405(2) states that "When character or a trait of character of a person is an essential element of a charge, claim, or defense, proof may be made of specific instances of that person's conduct," character is not an "essential element" of self-defense. One can, and generally defendant's do, raise self-defense claims, sometimes successfully, without presenting any evidence of character of the victim.

Tim,

If it exists, Zimmerman can introduce evidence of Martin's reputation/propensity for violence (i.e., "fighting") to establish that Martin was the initial aggressor. And Zimmerman can do so even if he had no prior knowledge of Martin's reputation/propensity for violence.

But, as you seem to point out, prior knowledge is required before Zimmerman could introduce specific acts of violence by Martin to establish that his (Zimmerman's) fear of Martin was reasonable.

Munoz v. State (2010) 45 So.3d 954

Trayvon was kicked out of his mother's home for fighting. Any evidence of Trayvon's criminal activity would be relevant to a self-defense defense. It would all go to Trayvon's violent and criminal behavior. Zimmerman was suspicous of Trayvon based on Trayvon's strange behavior, wandering about on private property in the rain. This is clearly an attempt to aid the prosecution. Everyone get on the Zimmerman Railroad. This case does not even have probable cause to support charges, much less an arrest and trial.

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