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Allen G. Breed, Associated Press, Published May 18 2012

Questions nag amid evidence cache in Trayvon Martin case

ORLANDO, Fla. – Prosecutors in the Trayvon Martin case dumped a mountain of evidence on the public this week. In many criminal cases, that would bring clarity, start answering the basic questions.

But no one – not pundits, attorneys or the public – can safely say we’re even close to knowing exactly how and why neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old in the black hoodie.

So many aspects of the Feb. 26 altercation and shooting in Sanford remain muddy. Who threw the first punch? Why did Zimmerman leave his car?

This cache of recordings, photos and statements is far from all the evidence. But it suggests there are answers we may never truly get.

“I can’t comment on, you know, what George saw or what George was thinking,” the suspect’s father, Robert, told investigators in a March 19 interview included in Thursday’s release. “Or what anybody saw or what they were thinking.”

In some states, “discovery” like this isn’t released prior to trial – unless it’s by a defense team hoping to score points in the court of public opinion. That is what happened during the infamous 2006 Duke University lacrosse rape case, in which North Carolina officials ultimately determined that the local prosecutor rushed to judgment in charging three students with raping a stripper.

In Florida, evidence is generally considered a public record once the prosecution turns it over to the defense. Among the things prosecutors are prohibited from releasing pretrial: Confessions.

Zimmerman gave several interviews to police, including re-enacting at the scene what he says happened that night. But there is no statement from the 28-year-old shooter among the materials made public this week.

His only public comment so far came during his detention hearing last month, when he apologized to Martin’s parents – but stopped short of admitting any crime.

Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor, says all this release does is to remind us how malleable “facts” can be.

“I think we always want evidence to be like we’re Moses climbing the temple mountain: You read it and get all the questions answered,” says Lave, who worked a decade as a public defender before entering academia. “I think people are really getting to find out how gray evidence really is.”

Perhaps the biggest revelation was the release of photographs showing Zimmerman with two black eyes, a swollen nose and multiple lacerations on the back of his close-cropped head.

Zimmerman’s lawyers have maintained their client was simply doing his duty when he noticed a stranger in the neighborhood and began following him. They say Martin was the aggressor, knocking Zimmerman to the ground, then pummeling him with his fists.

When Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm pistol and fired directly into the boy’s chest, the defense says, he was within his rights under Florida’s “stand your ground law.” Under that law, people are given wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat in a fight if they believe they are in danger of being killed or seriously injured, if they weren’t committing a crime themselves and if they are in a place they have the legal right to be.

Randy McClean, an Orlando-area defense attorney, has sifted through most of the evidence released thus far. He says it corroborates Zimmerman’s story of a struggle that was “at least moderate in nature.”

“But we still have the issue out there: Who was the initial aggressor?” McClean said. “The fact that there was a physical altercation, and it appears Martin was getting the better of Zimmerman in the altercation, it does not necessarily excuse Zimmerman’s act. Because if he was the initial aggressor, he can’t avail himself to the stand your ground law.”

To Martin’s family, none of that matters. Zimmerman shouldn’t have been following their son in the first place, especially after a dispatcher told him to stand down.

But, as Lave notes, “You don’t lose the right to self-defense because you act idiotic.”

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