Many advise people involved in shootings to say nothing to the police. I’m not among them. I’ve seen too many cases where declining to speak is heard as “I ain’t sayin’ nuttin’ ‘til my mouthpiece gets here,” and only the bad guy’s side of the story gets told or assumed. I do recommend that people caught up in these things tell the responding officers the nature of the attack on them which forced them to fire, and indicate that they’ll sign a complaint on the perpetrator. I also recommend pointing out evidence and witnesses, because both tend to disappear otherwise. From there on, I strongly suggest that they advise the police that they’ll fully cooperate after they’ve spoken with counsel.
Zimmerman did otherwise, answering all questions that night and in the time that followed, and he prevailed at trial. He convinced the investigators that he was telling the truth about being a victim, not a murderer. He even passed a lie detector test (voice stress analysis) administered by the police shortly after the shooting. When defense lawyer Mark O’Mara got lead investigator Chris Serino to say that he believed Zimmerman was telling the truth, it was crushingly powerful for his client. Even though the judge ordered the jury to disregard that statement the next morning in court, it was a bell that simply could not be unrung. It turned out that his having done a videotaped walk-through of the scene was also critical to his acquittal: it allowed the jury to see the complicated layout of the scene, all the more important since Judge Nelson denied the defense’s request to have the jury visit that scene.
I also advise my students to expect to take the stand on their own behalf after a self-defense shooting. Since both sides are going to stipulate as to who shot who, it’s going to come down to why you shot him…and, in the last analysis, that’s something the defendant can answer better than anyone else. Sometimes, only the defendant can really answer that question.
Why didn’t Zimmerman take the stand? When I talked to Mark O’Mara a year before the trial, I got the impression he was expecting Zimmerman to testify; that Zimmerman wanted to testify; and that O’Mara thought his client would handle it well. After the trial was over, O’Mara confirmed that Zimmerman wanted to take the stand.
I personally think he would have done well. He certainly did when he was talking to the cops. If he’s as articulate as his brother Robert, he would have done fine. Shortly after the acquittal, Robert Zimmerman went into the lion’s den in an interview by hostile Piers Morgan on CNN, and the young man absolutely handed Morgan’s pompous, prejudiced ass back to him on a silver platter.
Only Zimmerman and his defense lawyers can tell you why he didn’t take the stand, but I can give you an educated guess: He didn’t have to. The state’s case had imploded even before the defense began theirs, with virtually every prosecution witness turning into a defense witness. Zimmerman’s walk-through at the scene, when everything was fresh in his mind, was already in to the jury…and it was the best evidence. There was simply nothing important enough to add.
I will continue to recommend that people involved in these confusing, high-stress incidents not submit themselves to detailed questioning and re-enactment in the immediate aftermath. That said, it worked for George Zimmerman. I will continue to warn my students that they can expect to take the stand to explain why they shot their attacker…but in this case, George Zimmerman had already done that very well during police interrogation, and had nothing to gain by repeating himself.