The opening statements in George Zimmerman’s murder trial began with a stunning decision by defense attorney Don West to inject an attempt at humor. In addition to stammering, verbal meandering and seeming unclear about his own words for the majority of the statement, he offered a knock-knock joke that fell flat, sealing the lackluster performance with shocked silence from the jury and courtroom, and forcing him to ask for laughs.
I’ve seen hundreds of courtroom trials over the course of my career, both as a Federal agent and as a private investigator. I’ve been on the witness stand, hired as a consulted expert and just an interested party sitting in court, and I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like this in over 40 years of experience.
If that was legal strategy, at best it was to set up a future defense that Zimmerman is being badly represented. An opening statement should be polished, appropriate and to the point, and in such a high profile case, the lead attorney often delivers it. None of those things can be said of this one.
Indeed, the opening statement joke has not only raised eyebrows in legal communities and mainstream political and news commentaries, it has put the trial in the spotlight of such noted satire comedians as Stephen Colbert, of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central. Colbert poked open fun at the statement including an edited photo of O.J. Simpson attorney Johnnie Cochran and an edited video clip of the fictional small town attorney, Atticus Finch, from the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, both designed to show how ridiculous the Zimmerman defense came off to the public in general.
Much of this case hinges on facts difficult (if not impossible) to prove. The FBI can’t tell you who is on the audio tape screaming, Zimmerman or Trayvon Martin, and if they can’t tell you, there is no definitive answer.
It will come down to a trial of battling experts, each trying to be the most convincing. If I were George Zimmerman, I would be quite concerned after that opening statement.
The opening statement might be negated by stellar defense performance or other factors later in the trial, but you never erase a moment like that from the minds of the jury, nor anyone else who has seen it. And at this point, that includes much of the world. Neither side ended up with their ideal jury, the impact of which remains to be seen.
George Zimmerman is charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager that Zimmerman claimed was threatening his safety. The trial is expected to last up to four weeks.