Debra S Nelson says jury cannot hear details of Martin’s school suspension and rejects defence lawyer’s plea to have trial delayed
Jurors in George Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial next month will not be allowed to hear about Trayvon Martin’s past use of marijuana, details of his suspension from school or his familiarity with guns, a Florida judge said on Tuesday.
The ruling was issued at an eventful pre-trial hearing in Sanford before judge Debra S Nelson, who also slapped down defence attorney Mark O’Mara’s request that the case be delayed by up to six weeks.
It means that Zimmerman, 29, will go on trial as scheduled on June 10, when the former neighbourhood watch leader will deny that he murdered the 17-year-old Martin during a violent confrontation at a gated community in Sanford in February last year.
Nelson seemed in an uncompromising mood as she handed down a series of decisions during today’s hearing that will dictate the course of a trial that could last up to six weeks, and could see Zimmerman jailed for at least 25 years if he is convicted.
Evidence released by the defence last week, including text messages and photographs from Martin’s mobile phone, which show him smoking, discussing drugs and firearms and being “kicked out” from home by his mother, cannot be brought up in opening statements and will only be admitted later with her approval, she ruled.
State prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda earlier told the court they were “irrelevant”, and an attempt to tarnish the reputation of the teenager, who was killed with a single shot to the torso.
Additionally, the jury will not be taken to visit the scene of the shooting at the Retreat at Twin Lakes community; toxicology reports after Martin’s death showing traces of marijuana in his body cannot be mentioned; and the state will be allowed to question George Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie, who faces a separate perjury trial for lying about the couple’s finances at his earlier bail hearing, Nelson said.
“Today was very important because the trial is on track. This family has wanted to have their day in court,” Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing the Martin family, told reporters after the hearing.
“The judge went through about 22 motions which she denied. None of the information released last week was relevant [or] admissible. It does not conclude the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman.”
He also said it was “a huge victory” when Zimmerman’s lawyers, who insist their client acted in self-defence, waived his right to a pre-trial immunity hearing. Florida’s controversial stand-your-ground law allows for the use of deadly force in certain situations.
“It validated what all the protesters said about having the right to have George Zimmerman come to court to face the evidence against him for killing an unarmed teenager,” Crump said. “All they wanted was a fair process and the verdict be based on the evidence.”
O’Mara had filed a number of motions seeking to admit evidence of Martin’s troubled past, which included three suspensions from his Miami high school, discussions of his participation in organised fights and proof he had smoked marijuana.
“The ideas of marijuana use is intertwined with the behaviour on the night which for whatever reason led to the altercation,” O’Mara said. “We have a lot of evidence that marijuana use had something to do with the event.”
The defence also demanded a judicial inquiry into the conduct of state prosecutors, who, O’Mara said, had deliberately withheld evidence, namely three text messages and three photographs purporting to show “a firearm in someone’s hand, a photograph of an underage female and a photograph of drugs.”
He called Wesley White, an attorney who resigned from working with the state attorney’s office last year, to tesify that he had knowledge that the photographs were not handed over in a timely manner.
“This case is not going to be tried fairly if I still have to try to get, and fight, and find out that there were reports hidden from me. That was out of the blue,” O’Mara said.
“My fear is that matters will come up in the trial that I’m not ready for, that were not given to me promptly by the state.”
Judge Nelson quickly dismissed his call for a postponement in the trial date.”The court has provided both sides a lot of hearing time,” she said, referring to numerous prior court dates over the last 12 months at which evidence and procedural matters were discussed. “I think that’s sufficient time to get all the issues done and heard.”
De Rionda also objected to the defence motion. “This case has dragged on long enough,” he said.
There will be two further hearings before the trial opens, Nelson said, one on Friday and another on June 6 and 7 at which remaining issues will be ironed out. She has still to rule whether the jury will be sequestered throughout the trial and their anonymity protected.
Zimmerman, who is free on bail, was not present at Tuesday’s hearing. His brother Robert said afterwards that his family was deeply affected by the case.
“George is a good, decent and honest man,” he said. “George is in a fight for his life, quite literally. We are not a wealthy family but we are rich in honour, we are not a large family but we make up for our small numbers with courage.”