SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - “Wannabe cop” George Zimmerman wrongly profiled Trayvon Martin as a criminal, followed him with a gun and provoked him into a fight that resulted in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager, a prosecutor said on Thursday.
“A teenager is dead,” Florida state prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda told the jury in closing arguments of Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial. “He is dead through no fault of his own. He is dead because another man made assumptions. Because his assumptions were wrong, Trayvon Benjamin Martin will no longer walk on this Earth.”
Sounding indignant, de la Rionda portrayed Zimmerman as a predator, not the good citizen who, as portrayed by the defense, was attacked by a 17-year-old whose actions led to his own death.
Defense lawyers were due to present their closing arguments on Friday, followed by a final prosecution rebuttal, after which the jury would begin deliberating a case that has captivated and polarized much of the U.S. public.
Time and again, de la Rionda accused Zimmerman of lying about what happened the rainy night of February 26, 2012, when he spotted Martin inside a gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
Zimmerman called police, saying he believed Martin was suspicious and noted that there had been break-ins in the neighborhood.
But Martin was a guest in the home of his father’s fiancée, who lived inside the gated community, and was returning from a nearby convenience store with a snack in preparation for watching the NBA All-Star game.
De la Rionda tried to undermine Zimmerman’s claim that he was not following Martin but looking for a street address to relay to police. The prosecutor sought to reveal inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s statements and repeatedly quoted him speaking in police jargon.
Pointing at Zimmerman, who was seated at the defense table, de la Rionda asked the jury to use common sense to answer the question: “Do you believe there’s an innocent man sitting over there?”
“Who started this?” he asked. “Who followed who? Who was minding his own business? And of the two, who was armed?”
De la Rionda avoided mentioning race but said Zimmerman “profiled” Martin, suggesting he assumed Martin was a criminal because he was black.
The prosecutor also paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr. in defending witness Rachael Jeantel, a young woman of Haitian and Dominican origin who was on the phone with Martin when the teenager encountered Zimmerman.
Jeantel underscored the racial divide in the case by using what de la Rionda called “colorful language,” such as when she quoted Martin as referring to Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, as a “crazy ass cracker.” She also testified that Martin told Zimmerman to “get off,” suggesting Zimmerman initiated the confrontation.
“I had a dream that a witness was judged not by the color of her personality but by the content of her testimony,” de la Rionda said.
Considering that legal analysts have generally portrayed the prosecution case as weak, de la Rionda received positive reviews.
“He has to work within the confines of what he’s got, and he was animated,” said Alison Triessl, a California-based defense lawyer who has followed the trial closely. “I loved the question about who was the one who was really scared here.”
Attorney David Weinstein of Clarke Silverglate in Miami saw the prosecutor as effective, such as when he showed the last picture taken of Martin - an autopsy photo.
“He walked the jury through the evidence and pointed out the inconsistencies with the defense’s arguments,” he said. “He was confident in the job that his team has done and he ended with a sympathetic tug on the jurors hearts. He was not overly dramatic.”
Earlier on Thursday, Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson gave jurors the option of convicting Zimmerman of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Prosecutors wanted the sequestered, all-female jury to have the option of choosing a lesser offense that still carried a potentially lengthy sentence.
If convicted, Zimmerman could be sentenced to life in prison for second-degree murder and up to 30 years for manslaughter.
The defense preferred an all-or-nothing choice of second-degree murder, confident it had shown Zimmerman acted in self-defense and concerned the jury might opt for what lead defense lawyer Mark O’Mara described as a “compromise verdict.”
When police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman, it provoked street demonstration throughout the United States as critics blamed Zimmerman for pulling out his Kel Tec 9mm pistol, which was fully loaded with hollow-point bullets.
Backers of liberal gun laws have rallied behind Zimmerman and helped fund his defense, seeing him as a persecuted hero whose need for self-defense demonstrated the importance of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky