Murder trials make compelling viewing in American court of public opinion

Neighbourhood watch killing in Florida the latest courtroom drama to enthral US public

George Zimmerman wipes his face after arriving in the courtroom for closing arguments in his murder trial yesterday in Sanford, Florida. Photograph: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images

George Zimmerman wipes his face after arriving in the courtroom for closing arguments in his murder trial yesterday in Sanford, Florida. Photograph: Joe Burbank-Pool/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 13, 2013, 01:00

At any one time America – if the ever-looping news channels are a proxy for US public opinion – is absorbed by a number of murder trials as the gruesome nature of the crimes are drip-fed each day.

In May a jury in Arizona found Jodi Arias, a 32-year-old aspiring saleswoman and photographer, guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting and stabbing of former boyfriend Travis Alexander (30) in 2008.

The macabre sexual details of the crime and Arias’s portrayal as a femme fatale masquerading as a woman of faith made the trial tabloid television gold. One network even ran mock deliberations by viewer-jurors as the actual jury in the trial was hearing evidence in the case in what proved to be a major ratings winner for HLN, sister channel of CNN.

The ongoing trial of Boston Irish mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger (83) has drawn similar attention, though the prohibition of cameras from the courtroom limits the graphic details of the 19 murders Bulger is alleged to have had a role in to descriptive court reports rather than televised evidence.

At the outset of the trial last month, the former fugitive’s defence lawyer denied that Bulger was an FBI informant because, as an Irishman and given the experience of the Irish in the history of the Troubles, there was nothing worse than being a rat. The lawyer also maintained that Bulger didn’t kill women.

In the criminal underworld, with its warped code of honour, there seems to be nothing worse than being a rat or a woman-killer. No such reservations were expressed about Bulger’s involvement in racketeering, drug-dealing, extortion or the murders of 17 men in the 1970s and 1980s.

Claddagh ring
This week in the trial a Massachusetts state forensic anthropologist showed the jury gruesome photographs of the remains of several bodies found in shallow graves in the Boston area. The photographs included the image of a claddagh ring on the decomposed finger bone of one of Bulger’s alleged victims. Prosecutors went so far as to ask whether the heart was facing inwards or outwards. This is Boston after all, one of the most Irish cities in America.

One high-profile courtroom drama that reached its final stages yesterday is the trial of George Zimmerman (29), a neighbourhood watchman in Florida charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, on the night of February 26th, 2012.

In a trial where race and profiling bubbles under the surface, prosecutors have argued Martin died because Zimmerman was “a wannabe cop” who assumed Mr Martin was a criminal and provoked the teenager into a fight.

Although prosecutors have not explicitly referred to it, race is an underlying issue. In closing remarks on Thursday, prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda alleged that Zimmerman had assumed that the African-American teenager in a hooded sweatshirt was in the neighbourhood to cause trouble.

“He is dead because another man made assumptions,” she said, “because his assumptions were wrong.”

Zimmerman’s defence is self-defence – that he was protecting himself after Martin knocked him to the ground, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly against a pavement. Fearing that Martin was reaching for Zimmerman’s legally-held concealed gun in his waistband, he shot the teenager.

Even though Zimmerman is part Latino (his mother is Peruvian) his defence has chosen not to publicly identify with his Hispanic roots to stress that self-defence, not race, is at the centre of the case.

John Good, a neighbour, testified that he saw someone in dark clothing straddling someone with lighter skin in what he described as a “ground and pound” position, supporting Zimmerman’s account.

Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantel recounted in evidence how Martin told her in a phone conversation shortly before he was shot that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker”.

The trial has had its bizarre moments. Defence lawyer Don West tried to curry favour with jurors in his opening statement with a joke: “Knock, knock. Who’s there? George Zimmerman. George Zimmerman who? All right, good, you’re on the jury.” He apologised to the jury later in the day.

The jury will shortly begin its deliberations in the trial, while police in southern Florida are preparing for any protests or civil unrest if Zimmerman walks away a free man.

The shooting last year and six-week delay in Zimmerman’s arrest provoked anger among leaders fighting for equal rights for African-Americans within what they claim is a biased US justice system.

Unlike the American public’s lurid fascination with other murder trials, the racial dimension of the Zimmerman case creates the potential for the drama to spill out of the courtroom onto the streets.

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