SANFORD, Fla. -- By questioning a state investigator on the witness stand during a routine bail hearing, George Zimmerman's defense attorney showed some of the weaknesses in prosecutors' claims that the neighborhood watch volunteer committed second-degree murder, legal experts say.
A judge ruled Friday that Zimmerman can be released on $150,000 bail while he awaits trial on killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a Feb. 26 confrontation in a Sanford gated community. Zimmerman apologized to Martin's parents, who were in the courtroom for the bail hearing, in a surprise appearance on the witness stand. Zimmerman is pleading not guilty and claims self-defense.
"I am sorry for the loss of your son," said Zimmerman, marking the first time he has spoken in public about the confrontation with the unarmed black teen. "I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. I did not know if he was armed or not."
The apology came after Zimmerman's defense attorney, Mark O'Mara, questioned an investigator for the special prosecutor, sentence by sentence, about a probable cause affidavit the investigator signed outlining certain facts in the case.
Investigator Dale Gilbreath testified that he did not know whether Martin or Zimmerman threw the first punch and that there was no evidence to disprove Zimmerman's contention he was walking back to his vehicle when confronted by Martin. The affidavit says "Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued." But Gilbreath also said Zimmerman's claim that Martin was slamming his head against the sidewalk just before he shot the teenager was "not consistent with the evidence we found." He gave no details.
Legal observers said the questioning of Gilbreath was strategically smart for O'Mara because the investigator's statements can be used at a later date to either contradict other testimony or be used to decide how to question other witnesses.
"I thought it was a really great thing to do," said Tom Mesereau, a Los Angeles attorney whose clients have included singer Michael Jackson and actor Robert Blake. "He used the hearing to get information that can only help his defense. What was supposed to be strictly a hearing for bail, he used it as a discovery device, and was able to nail the investigator into making very, very pointed statements about the investigation and about what evidence they have."
The questioning exposed some of the weaknesses in the state's case, said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. Attorney in Miami who is now in private practice. "There are many miles left in this case but I think O'Mara helped the defense by eliciting those responses," Coffey said. "He is going to look for the chance to cross-examine that same investigator and ask him the same questions. If the investigator changes his story, he is going to lose credibility with the jury."
Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda dismissed any notion that the investigator's testimony chipped away at their case. "You have not heard all of the evidence," de la Rionda said after the hearing. "Please be patient and wait for the trial."
Bail is not unheard of in second-degree murder cases, and legal experts had predicted it would be granted for Zimmerman because of his ties to the community, because he turned himself in after he was charged last week, and because he has never been convicted of a serious crime.