Two lawyers who represented defendant George Zimmerman in the high-profile Trayvon Martin murder trial talked Thursday about their trial techniques and strategies that helped lead to an acquittal.
Attorneys Mark O’Mara, who was Zimmerman’s lead counsel, and Don West, a 1980 graduate of the University at Buffalo Law School, discussed the Florida case before about 250 law students at a panel discussion as part of the 10th annual Buffalo Niagara Trial Competition.
West may be best remembered for the knock-knock joke that fell flat with jurors during his opening statement. But O’Mara credited West for his work in persuading the judge not to allow the jury to consider a lesser murder charge.
A key moment came near the end of the trial when both sides suggested what the judge should include in her instructions to jurors before deliberations. Prosecutors for the first time suggested that the judge allow jurors to consider the less serious charges of manslaughter and third-degree murder based on child abuse, arguing that since Trayvon was 17 when Zimmerman fatally shot him during a confrontation, he was a minor, or child.
“It was a brilliant strategy to give the jury something to hang their hat on,” offering jurors a compromise verdict if they couldn’t convict Zimmerman of murder, West said.
“It was the ultimate in sandbagging,” he said of the last-minute prosecution strategy in the case.
West argued against it, and “the court ultimately did the right thing” in rejecting it, he said.
“That saved the case,” West said.
“We wanted to avoid a compromise verdict,” O’Mara said.
O’Mara recalled West’s outrage at the prosecution’s move.
“Don came as close as you can to contempt without being thrown in jail,” he said.
Zimmerman, the son of a white father and Hispanic mother, was acquitted of murder and manslaughter in the death of the unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman confronted Trayvon as the teen walked through a gated community wearing a hoodie last year on his way to his father’s home. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, said he shot Trayvon in self-defense.
During his appearance at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, West also referred to the knock-knock joke.
“In our openings, we like to start with a knock-knock joke,” he said Thursday to the law students.
West made the joke about the jury-selection process.
“George Zimmerman, who?”
“All right, good. You’re on the jury.”
At the murder trial, jurors reacted to the joke with silence.
“Nothing?” West asked the jurors. “That’s funny, after what you folks have been through the last two or three weeks.”
Even though legal analysts called the joke inappropriate, Buffalo defense attorney Paul J. Cambria Jr. complimented West for how he handled the jury’s reaction.
“You recovered from that. You rolled on,” said Cambria, also a panelist.
Cambria also praised O’Mara for his use of a chart during his closing argument as he reviewed the areas of doubt in the case against Zimmerman.
“That’s brilliant and an effective way to point out doubts to the jurors,” Cambria said.
“The charts are available for licensing,” O’Mara replied.
Other panel members included Buffalo attorney Terrence M. Connors, Erie County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio and Assistant U.S. Attorney Trini E. Ross. Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk was the moderator..
The mock trial event, sponsored by the UB Law School, involves students from 36 law schools. It ends Monday.