SANFORD, Fla. — How would Florida State Attorney Angela Corey describe George Zimmerman in one word?
That’s what an emotional Corey told HLN’s Vinnie Politan when she sat down with fellow prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda and Politan in Jacksonville Monday to discuss the obstacles they faced prosecuting the former neighborhood watch captain.
“We were left with inconsistent witnesses in terms of what actually happened and (Zimmerman’s) story, and what we’re trying to prove is that his story was false,” said de la Rionda.
The lack of reliable eyewitness reports and lack of physical evidence made it impossible for the prosecutors to tell the jurors exactly what happened during the fight between Zimmerman and Martin.
“Our belief as to what happened: He chased down Trayvon Martin, he wanted to make sure Travyon Martin did not get away,” said de la Rionda. “Now at what point he pulled out the gun? We could speculate as to what happened. My theory is that he pulled it out early. He was going to make sure he didn’t get away. He wanted to be a cop.”
Zimmerman first recounted his story to police at the Sanford police station on the night of the shooting. He then returned to the scene with police the next day to walk through the neighborhood and explain, in greater detail, his version of what led to the altercation between the two men and ultimately Martin’s death.
But even after that interview, gaps still remained in Zimmerman’s story. There weren’t enough details to get a complete picture of what happened. Investigators who responded to the scene the night of the killing have been criticized for not only possibly mishandling physical evidence, but for not following up with Zimmerman regarding specifics of what happened that night.
The prosecution was then left with gaps in Zimmerman’s story and not enough evidence to fill them in. Prosecutor de la Rionda told Politan they would have handled things differently on the night of the killing. He said they would have continued to question Zimmerman at the police station that night, while DNA and other pieces of evidence were being analyzed.
“We would have gone out and evaluated the evidence,” said de la Rionda. “We would have sat through the interview with George Zimmerman, and at that time we probably would have sat back and then analyzed what he said. The benefit is automatically (Zimmerman) doesn’t get an attorney, so in other words, if he’s still talking, let him keep talking. And then evaluate all the evidence,” said De la Rionda.
Politan asked Corey and de la Rionda specifically about the gaps in Zimmerman’s story and how they would have attempted to get those questions answered, if they had been there that night.
“I think it would have been a more aggressive interview by the detectives,” said de la Rionda. “I think that started on the 29th, a few days later, but really what you want to do is confront him. You want to lock him into a statement and really confront him. I don’t know if that was done until the very end, and that was only a start, because they didn’t have all the evidence. They didn’t have the DNA, they didn’t have all that stuff,” said De la Rionda.
“We would have gotten the analysis and then I would have requested for (Zimmerman) to come back in, have the detectives (there), and actually have (Zimmerman) demonstrate how he took the gun out, and see how close it was, and how Trayvon, he claims, was on top,” said de la Rionda. “And at that time, I think we would have broken him.”
Zimmerman wasn’t arrested until more than a month after killing Martin, which at the time sparked widespread protest. Politan addressed that concern with Corey and de la Rionda, asking what they would have done differently and whether they would have arrested Zimmerman that night.
“So based on what (Zimmerman) said in this case, if you guys are there, does Zimmerman get arrested?” Politan asked.
“No,” Corey said. “And neither does any other citizen who’s in an arguable claim of justified use of deadly force, until all the evidence has been analyzed. The people who were saying, ‘But they determined there was no probable cause,’ well, the DNA hadn’t even been done yet. So how do you test the truth of George Zimmerman’s statements without analyzing all the evidence? In a lot of justifiable-use-of-deadly-force cases, the arrest doesn’t happen immediately, but the investigation has to continue,” Corey said.
Politan continued to press Corey and de la Rionda on the arrest, mentioning the frustration, at the time, expressed by Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.
“Here’s what people need to realize,” said de la Rionda, “what we do, in addition to going to the scene, is we make contact with the victim’s family right away. We get them in our office and explain what the process is, what we’re going through and why it’s beneficial to let it play out. In other words, there may not be an arrest right away, but it’s to our benefit.”
Politan asked prosecutors about their clash with Sanford Police Detective Chris Serino, who was originally the lead investigator on the case and who testified in court and basically stated he believed Zimmerman’s story. Serino interviewed Zimmerman a few days after the shooting on February 29, 2012, but was unable to finish the investigation after it was taken over by Corey and her team. Politan asked Corey about Serino’s suggested charge of manslaughter or second-degree murder.
“Or second-degree murder,” Corey insisted. “So the prosecution was in the process of getting ready to do their job. They had not even begun their part of the investigation yet…So this case was incomplete at best at the time it was assigned to us and at the time Serino had supposedly made up his mind,” Corey said.
Politan asked Corey if something else was going on between Serino and prosecutors — why they didn’t seem to be on the same team — since Serino’s testimony didn’t seem to support the prosecution’s case.
Attacking Serino’s statement “would have left us in the position of attacking Chris Serino, who just tried to do a good job in this case,” Corey said.
“We would have had to go, ‘But Detective Serino, you made up your mind before the DNA was done, you made up your mind before you checked the medical records to show that (Zimmerman’s) injury that looked so bloody in that first photograph was really a cut this big?’ That’s why prosecutors take over the cases, that’s why police officers don’t prosecute their own cases, because we have to look at the additional evidence and what refutes George Zimmerman’s story. And there was a wealth of hard, cold physical evidence, DNA and everything else, that showed that George Zimmerman lied in his statements to the police,” Corey said.
Politan then asked why prosecutors didn’t present to the jury what could have happened that night, to fill in the gaps and prove Zimmerman was lying.
“Well, the problem you’ve got in a trial is you can’t say to the jury, ‘don’t speculate’ and then ask them to speculate,” said de la Rionda. So we’re left with the defendant’s story and what we attempted to do as best we could is prove that his story was false. Therefore, why would he be lying about something, something minor like getting an address? I thought that was blatantly a lie, and while I was talking to the jury, I saw them nodding their heads.”
De la Rionda added that he was sure Zimmerman would get on the stand to tell his story, but even without the opportunity to cross-examine him and try to directly poke holes in his story, prosecutors say they thought Zimmerman’s lies would so blatant, that would be enough for the jury to see his story as false.
“And you have the injuries,” Corey added. “And the injuries indicate there was some sort of struggle. We never said Trayvon Martin didn’t do something to George Zimmerman. What we said is you can’t take a concealed weapon and encourage or incite a fist fight, which is what he did by stalking at teenager who didn’t know who he was, and then whip your gun out and shoot … never explaining the details of how he was able to pull his gun, if he was being beaten as brutally as he claimed.
“We clearly refuted it with the physical evidence. No DNA on Trayvon Martin’s hands, which were supposedly covering (Zimmerman’s) bloody nose. So many other things, and those lies were put in front of the jury, one after the other. And in addition…the accusation that we overcharged is ludicrous in light of the evidence. What citizen, who’s just defending himself, writes the word ‘suspect’ 24 times in a statement, unless, he thinks he’s the police officer trying to explain how he was attempting to apprehend a suspect, and then had to fight him off and kill him? No normal citizen calls a dead teenager ‘the suspect.’ It goes to his mindset.”
Politan’s interview with the Zimmerman prosecutors touched on a wide variety of other issues, including whether there will be federal charges brought against Zimmerman, why Martin’s parents were not in the courtroom for the verdict, and the firing of former IT director Ben Kruidbos. The interview will air Monday night at 10 p.m. ET on a special edition of HLN After Dark.
Saturday night, Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges related to be arrested for Martin’s death. On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting the unarmed teen.
Graham Winch | HLNTV.com