June 26, 2013

Judge in Trayvon Martin case weighs police calls

By KYLE HIGHTOWER and MIKE SCHNEIDER, Associated Press

SANFORD, Fla. — Several times in six months, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman called police to report suspicious characters in the gated townhouse community where he lived. Each time, when asked, he reported that the suspects were black males.

On Tuesday, the judge at Zimmerman’s murder trial in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin listened to those five calls and weighed whether to let the jury hear them, too.

Prosecutors want to use them to bolster their argument that Zimmerman was increasingly frustrated with repeated burglaries and had reached a breaking point the night he shot the unarmed teenager.

The recordings show Zimmerman’s “ill will,” prosecutor Richard Mantei told Judge Debra Nelson.

“It shows the context in which the defendant sought out his encounter with Trayvon Martin,” Mantei said.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara argued that the calls were irrelevant and that nothing matters but the seven or eight minutes before Zimmerman fired the deadly shot into Martin’s chest.

The prosecution is “going to ask the jury to make a leap from a good, responsible, citizen behavior to seething behavior,” O’Mara said.

The judge did not immediately rule on whether to admit the recordings.

Prosecutors played the calls with the jurors out of the courtroom at the beginning of a day in which a former Zimmerman neighbor testified about what she saw of the confrontation.

Also, prosecutors presented graphic photos of Martin’s body, a police officer described trying to revive Martin as bubbling sounds came from his chest, and a police manager described how she helped Zimmerman set up the neighborhood watch.

In the calls, Zimmerman identifies himself as a neighborhood watch volunteer and recounts that his neighborhood has had a rash of recent break-ins. In one call, he asks that officers respond quickly since the suspects “typically get away quickly.”

In another, he describes suspicious black men hanging around a garage and mentions his neighborhood had a recent garage break-in.

Zimmerman, 29, could get life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder for gunning down Martin as the young man walked from a convenience store. Zimmerman followed him in his truck and called a police dispatch number before he and the teen got into a fight.

Zimmerman has claimed self-defense, saying he opened fire after the teenager jumped him and began slamming his head against the concrete sidewalk.

Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, has denied the confrontation with the black teenager had anything to do with race, as Martin’s family and its supporters have charged.

On Tuesday, Day 2 of testimony, prosecutors called to the stand a former Zimmerman neighbor, Selene Bahadoor, the first witness to say she saw part of the struggle.

She described the sound of movement from left to right outside her townhouse and said she heard what sounded like someone saying, “No” or “Uh.”

She said that when she looked out a window she saw arms flailing in the dark. She said she left to turn off a stove and then heard a gunshot. The next time she looked out, she saw a body on the ground, she testified.

In cross-examining her, O’Mara accused Bahadoor of never mentioning the left-to-right movement in previous interviews.

Zimmerman contends he lost track of Martin and was returning to his car when he was attacked. But Bahadoor’s testimony appeared to suggest Zimmerman was moving away from his vehicle.

O’Mara later confronted her with a post she made on Facebook in which she “liked” a petition that championed the arrest of Zimmerman following the shooting.

A Sanford police sergeant who was the second officer to arrive on the scene also testified. Sgt. Tony Raimondo said he tried to seal a bullet wound in Martin’s chest with a plastic bag and attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Bubbling sounds indicated air was escaping the teen’s chest, Raimondo said. Martin was pronounced dead a short time later.

During Raimondo’s testimony, prosecutors showed jurors a photo of a dead Martin face-down in the grass, another of Martin’s body face up with his eyes slightly open, and a third of the bullet wound. Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, walked out of the courtroom during the testimony.

Wendy Dorival, former coordinator of the Sanford Police Department’s neighborhood watch program, testified how she had worked with Zimmerman to set up a watch in his neighborhood.

When asked by prosecutor John Guy if neighborhood watch participants should follow or engage with suspicious people, she said no.

“They are the eyes and ears of law enforcement,” Dorival said. “They’re not supposed to take matters into their own hands.”

Similarly, Donald O’Brien, president of Zimmerman’s homeowners association, said it was his understanding that neighborhood watch members are supposed to “stay at a safe distance” and “let the police handle it.”

But Dorival said she was impressed with Zimmerman’s professionalism and dedication to his community.

“He seemed like he really wanted to make changes in his community, to make it better,” she said.

———

Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KHightower

Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MikeSchneiderAP