Two weeks into the George Zimmerman trial the debate has intensified over whether Florida state prosecutor Angela "tough on Crime" Corey and her team is helping or hurting their case against Zimmerman with their witnesses. The string of witnesses has offered a mixed bag of both damning and corroborative testimony against and for Zimmerman that has been more than enough to the send a red flag up. Though Zimmerman is not a police officer being prosecuted for misconduct, he's the closest thing to it without a badge. And that conferred on him some of the same perks that cops tried for misconduct get in hyper racially charged cases where the victims such as Trayvon Martin are young African-American or Hispanics.
The two biggest are the top flight defense attorneys that defend police officers or those with some legal standing. They routinely twist and turn prosecution witnesses and their testimony inside out. They use a storehouse of techniques from subtly playing on racial stereotypes to dredging up the often checkered personal histories of prosecution witnesses to impugn their character, veracity, and integrity. This template has been employed with near textbook lethal efficiency by Zimmerman's defense attorneys.
The far bigger perk, though, for defendants such as Zimmerman are often the prosecutors. They are loath to bring charges against police officers or those that have close ties with the police that are accused of misconduct. More than a decade ago the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in its landmark study," Who's Guarding the Guardians," of the conduct of police and prosecutors in civil rights cases, told exactly why. It cited the traditionally close relationship between district or county attorneys and police officers, who usually work together to prosecute criminals, the difficulties they have in convincing grand juries and trial juries that a police officer did not merely make an understandable mistake, but committed a crime; and the lack of information about cases that could be prosecuted or systems for reviewing possibly prosecutable cases .
These hurdles were plainly evident in the moments after Martin was gunned down. Zimmerman was not arrested, his statements largely were accepted without corroboration, and photos after the fact of his alleged injuries at the hands of Martin were widely distributed, and the leaks about Martin's alleged bad behavior while silent about Zimmerman's run-ins with the law. Then there was the initial decision by Sanford police officials in consort with local prosecutors not to file charges against Zimmerman.
The testimony of the first prosecution witnesses stirred the controversy. One virtually fingered Martin as the aggressor. And one Sanford police officer strongly hinted that he thought Zimmerman was telling the truth about his version of the confrontation with Martin and that an audiotape of the police dispatcher call seemed to support it. Another one tried to shoot down the notion that Martin was racially profiled by Zimmerman. Prosecutors hammered both on their statements and got them to partially back away from them. One was so prejudicial in favor of Zimmerman that the judge even ruled that it could not be admitted. But the jury still heard the officer's supportive words of Zimmerman.
The way around the often ingrained reluctance of local prosecutors to prosecute cops or individuals such as Zimmerman or prosecute tepidly has been to appoint a special prosecutor supposedly who can be independent, objective, and with no close ties to law enforcement or those close to law enforcement in a city or county where the cops have been accused of misconduct. That's why Corey was chosen to prosecute Zimmerman. But the U.S. Civil Rights Commission noted that the appointment of a special prosecutor does not guarantee that police officers accused of wrongdoing will be prosecuted and ultimately punished. In many cases, the special prosecutor is another county or district attorney selected from a neighboring jurisdiction that may be subject to the same biases and partiality as the original prosecutor. The Commission cites numerous examples where special prosecutors have been appointed in high profile cases to eliminate real or perceived bias by local prosecutors for the defendants yet the prosecution has still failed to get a conviction.
The conventional wisdom is that a hard line law and order prosecutor such as Corey will pull out all stops to nail a Zimmerman. But the mish mash testimony from the prosecution witnesses against him can't be casually dismissed when there's the ever present danger that jurors can interpret confused testimony from prosecution witnesses to mean that it has not proven its case against a defendant beyond the high standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. The job of Zimmerman's defense attorneys is to create just enough doubt to win acquittal or at the worst play for a hung jury. The absolute disastrous thing that can happen in these cases is for the prosecution to do anything that can be construed by jurors as aiding and abetting the defense. This is even more imperative in a touchy, polarizing, high profile, racially charged trial.
The prosecution needs its best A game to insure a conviction in these type cases. Without second guessing the Zimmerman's prosecution's choice of witnesses and testimony or trial outcome, the jury as always in these cases is out on how well the prosecution does its job.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new ebook is America on Trial: The Slaying of Trayvon Martin ( Amazon ). He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KTYM 1460 AM Radio Los Angeles and KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.
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