July 10, 2013 / 3:16 PM / 4 years ago

Zimmerman does not testify, as defense rests its case

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Lawyers for George Zimmerman rested their case on Wednesday without calling the former neighborhood watch volunteer to testify, setting up the final stages of his closely watched murder trial for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

“After consulting with counsel, (I have decided) not to testify, your honor,” Zimmerman said in response to questions from Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson.

It was a rare chance to hear Zimmerman speak, as the overweight 29 year old sat emotionless throughout most of the proceedings, smartly dressed in suits and ties bought for him by a supporter.

Jurors were set to begin deliberating on Friday afternoon, after prosecutors delivered closing arguments on Thursday and the defense on Friday morning.

The defense used less than four days of testimony to present its case, while prosecutors spent nine days putting on witnesses.

The defense won generally positive reviews from legal analysts, particularly for its use of well-known forensic pathologist Vincent DiMaio, whose testimony supported Zimmerman’s claim he acted in self-defense after suffering at least six blows to the head.

Zimmerman considered Martin, 17, suspicious after spotting him on February 26, 2012, in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, where Martin was a visitor and Zimmerman was the chief neighborhood watch volunteer.

Zimmerman called police and before officers arrived, the two engaged in a confrontation in which Zimmerman drew his Kel Tech 9mm pistol and shot Martin once through the heart.

Zimmerman remained free for more than six weeks after killing Martin because Sanford police initially declined to arrest him, accepting his claim he shot and killed Martin in self-defense.

While civil rights advocates and demonstrators demanded Zimmerman be charged, defenders of liberal gun laws came to his defense, saying Zimmerman was being persecuted for exercising his Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Nine of the 19 defense witnesses said they recognized Zimmerman’s voice as that screaming for help on the background of a 911 emergency call, among them Zimmerman’s mother and father. Zimmerman, who suffered several head injuries, told police immediately after the shooting he had called for help but no one responded.

Prosecutors had previously called Martin’s mother and brother, who testified they believed it was Martin who was heard calling for help.

George Zimmerman sits in the courtroom for his second-degree murder trial in Seminole circuit court in Sanford, Florida, July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Gary W. Green/Pool

The screams end upon the sound of a gunshot, and the case might hinge on whom the six-woman jury believes was calling for help.

Curiously, the defense opted against introducing evidence that Martin had a trace amount of marijuana in his system at the time of his death, after fighting hard for the right to admit it. Defense attorney Don West declined to say why.

The shooting in the central Florida town sparked protests and controversy throughout much of last year as it raised questions about racial profiling, guns and bias in U.S. law enforcement.

The Sanford Police Department has put measures in place ahead of the verdict, although Chief Cecil Smith said he is not expecting any violence or even the kind of protests that broke out in Sanford last year and soon spread across the country.

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“People are not feeling or hearing anything out there in the community, there’s no chatter out there about anything taking place and in some cases there’s more of a spin-up on the media side with regards to there being some issues of concern,” Smith told Reuters.

Special prosecutor Angela Corey brought the charge of second-degree murder after the public outcry in Sanford, major U.S. cities and other small towns.

Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, faces up to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder. The judge said on Wednesday that prosecutors requested that the jury also consider the lesser offense of manslaughter, with a maximum penalty of 30 years.

Teresa Sopp, a veteran criminal defense lawyer based in Jacksonville, Florida, said prosecutors overreached with a second-degree murder charge and said lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda lacked the evidence he needed for a strong case.

“I’ve never seen Bernie in court with such a mess,” said Sopp, who has done battle with de la Rionda many times in the courtroom. “I’ve never seen him in such straits.”

Sopp blamed Corey.

“She always jumps at a case to prosecute ... She overprosecutes everything,” Sopp said.

Corey, seated in the front row of the gallery throughout the trial, has declined to comment until after the verdict.

Additional reporting by Tom Brown and Kevin Gray; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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