SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida judge on Tuesday delayed a ruling on whether jurors in the murder trial of George Zimmerman could listen to telephone calls the neighborhood watch volunteer made to police in the months before he killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.
Prosecutors say the calls, in which Zimmerman reported what he described as suspicious activity by black men, demonstrated “profiling” and were key to understanding the defendant’s state of mind on February 26, 2012 when he called police to report Martin minutes before shooting him in the chest at point black range.
Defense attorneys have objected to the use of the tapes in the trial, calling the prior phone calls “irrelevant” and contending that they would tell jurors nothing about Zimmerman’s thinking on the night he shot the 17-year-old Martin.
“They’re asking this jury to make a quantum leap,” said lead defense lawyer, Mark O‘Mara.
Zimmerman, 29 and part Hispanic, was a neighborhood watch coordinator in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Florida, at the time of the killing. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and could face life imprisonment if convicted.
The killing of Martin and the decision by police not to arrest Zimmerman for 44 days sparked cries of injustice and led to civil rights protests in this central Florida town and in major cities across the United States last year.
To win a conviction for second-degree murder, the prosecution must convince jurors that Zimmerman acted with “ill will, hatred, spite or an evil intent,” and “an indifference to human life,” according to Florida jury instructions.
Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who is presiding over the trial, did not rule immediately on Tuesday after hearing arguments about Zimmerman’s calls, which took place between August 2011 and February 2012.
She listened to the tapes in open court before calling in the jury for a second straight day of testimony.
In four of the calls, Zimmerman reports what he describes as suspicious behavior by various black men and he can be heard using certain words or phrases similar to those he used when he called to report Martin to police.
“They typically run away quickly,” he said in one call, referring to two men who he said matched the description of suspects in a recent neighborhood burglary.
The six jurors and four alternates hearing the case were selected last week and opening statements began on Monday.
Prosecutors were expected later on Tuesday to reveal a star witness, the teenage girl who was talking with Martin on the phone in the last minutes of his life.
The girl, who had been known as Witness No. 8 ahead of the trial and was identified in court on Monday only as Rachel, was due to testify about what Martin was saying moments before his cellphone went dead.
Martin’s friend from Miami, she heard a running account about what was happening in the minutes before the shooting, starting when he noticed Zimmerman watching him in the gated central Florida community he was visiting.
In previous written testimony, Rachel described Martin as scared and trying to get away from the man. She was urging him to run. She last heard Martin say, “why are you following me” after which she said she heard what sounded like Martin falling.
The Martin family lawyer, Ben Crump, has said her testimony helps destroy the defense’s argument that Zimmerman acted in self-defense after Martin viciously attacked him.
Martin was a student at a Miami-area high school and was staying with one of the homeowners at the gated community in Sanford when he was killed. He was walking back to the house when he encountered Zimmerman.
In opening statements on Monday, the prosecution portrayed Zimmerman as a man with a concealed weapon who committed a vigilante-style killing, while Zimmerman’s defense team laid out the self-defense argument.
Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which was approved in 2005 and has since been copied by about 30 other states, people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.
Editing by David Adams and Paul Simao