Orlando, Fla. - George Zimmerman's defense team released a color photograph from the night he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, showing him with a bloody nose. The release comes as doubts surround the statements made by police who responded to the scene of the shooting on Feb. 26, 2012.
It was a strange development in a case that has seen more than its share: Chris Serino, the lead police investigator in the Trayvon Martin shooting, hired famed Casey Anthony defense attorney Jose Baez to represent him at his upcoming deposition in the case.
It’s unclear what prompted Serino to hire a private attorney — eschewing available representation by the city of Sanford, Fla., his employer. But one issue likely to come up is his double-talk on whether there was enough evidence to support George Zimmerman’s arrest as controversy surrounding the case spiraled out of control last spring.
Serino wrote in a sworn affidavit that there was probable cause to arrest Zimmerman. But he later told the Federal Bureau of Investigation he was pressured to author that document and didn’t believe the evidence was sufficient for the manslaughter charge he recommended.
And Serino isn’t the only Sanford officer whose testimony could prove troublesome for prosecutors in the second-degree murder case against Zimmerman: High-ranking fellow officers largely agreed in March that there was not sufficient evidence to arrest Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s legal team has since listed several of them, including former Sanford police Chief Bill Lee Jr. and Serino’s supervisors, as witnesses the defense plans to call at trial.
Baez was not available to comment for this story. But in a recent interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Baez said that Serino hired him because “it’s a very politically charged case, and he just wants to make sure that everything is done by the book.” Special Prosecutor Angela Corey’s office — which Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed to handle the case — also did not respond to requests for comment.
“The evidence in this case is going to be gone over by the finest of fine-toothed combs,” he said. “If you look at the innards of most homicide investigations, there are a tremendous number of I’s that aren’t dotted and T’s that are not crossed.”
For weeks, as the unarmed Miami Gardens, Fla., teen’s Feb. 26 shooting by the Neighborhood Watch volunteer became an international controversy, Sanford police insisted they were conducting a by-the-book investigation.
On March 12, Lee said at a news conference that his agency could not arrest Zimmerman because investigators had failed to establish probable cause.
Four days later, Lee and several officers, including Serino, went over details of their investigation in an exclusive interview with the Sentinel, and again insisted they didn’t have enough evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.
“We did not have enough for an arrest warrant,” Serino said at that time.
But in the time between the news conference and the interview, Serino signed a sworn affidavit declaring there was enough evidence in the case to arrest Zimmerman.
“Based upon the facts and circumstances … I believe there exists probable cause for issuance of a (warrant) charging George Michael Zimmerman with Manslaughter,” Serino’s March 13 affidavit said.
Serino also contradicted his affidavit in an interview with the FBI. He told agents that superior officers had been “pressuring him to file charges against” Zimmerman, and he “did not believe he had enough evidence at the time to file charges,” according to an FBI summary of the interview.
In an email in July, Lee explained the affidavit as “standard procedure” for forwarding the case to the State Attorney’s Office, and such a request “is not probable cause.”
Despite hiring an attorney, there’s no indication that Serino is currently facing internal or external investigation for his handling of the shooting. But several experts consulted by the Sentinel said there are a wide range of potential penalties for filing a false affidavit.
Orlando attorney Howard Marks, who frequently sues police agencies and officers for alleged misconduct, said that if an officer intentionally includes false facts in an affidavit, he may be guilty of violating a suspect’s constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure. The officer could then be liable for civil damages.
But further complicating the issue is that there is no allegation that Serino included false facts. It was Serino’s written conclusion about the strength of the evidence against Zimmerman — an opinion — that’s problematic. That, Marks said, may eliminate Serino’s civil liability.
John Ross, a former attorney for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, said that when an officer files an untrue affidavit to get someone arrested, it’s a very serious offense that could lead to termination.
“That’s moral turpitude. That’s one of the biggies,” he said.
Experts say such an offense could even lead to criminal charges, such as official misconduct, perjury or filing a false official statement.
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A recent court filing illustrates another problem for prosecutors involving police witnesses in the case: Sanford Sgt. Joseph Santiago told defense attorneys at deposition that he was privy to meetings in late February and early March, involving Lee, Serino and prosecutor Jim Carter of the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney’s Office, the same agency to which Serino submitted his affidavit.
When Serino filed an affidavit requesting a manslaughter charge, Carter was “very upset,” Santiago told the defense, as was Santiago’s captain. The consensus among most at daily meetings, Santiago said, was that there was “insufficient evidence” to bring a charge.
Grieco, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor from Miami, said the state will fight to keep Sanford officers from testifying on their opinions of the evidence, but jurors will know that the police chose not to make an arrest.
“I can’t remember ever seeing or hearing about a case where you have the police officers firmly believing that they didn’t even have probable cause for an arrest (but) then you have a prosecutor’s office … believing that they have not only enough to charge, but to convict,” Grieco said.
Corey, the special prosecutor, won’t have to rely solely on Sanford police work: The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and Corey’s own investigators also gathered evidence.
O’Donnell, of John Jay College, predicted the state may have to “throw the cops under the bus.”
Said O’Donnell: “The prosecution will come back and say, ‘What do you expect them to say about a case that they bungled?’ ”