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In Zimmerman trial, prosecution’s case circling the drain

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George Zimmerman's defense attorneys have yet to take the field, but they're already up by double digits.

Prosecutors in the closely watched, racially charged trial — seeking to convict Mr. Zimmerman of murder in the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin — have stumbled, analysts say, as several key witnesses have cast doubt on the state's version of events and on several occasions have portrayed the defendant as a credible, even sympathetic figure.

The trial, receiving virtually uninterrupted coverage on the major cable news networks, is reviving some of the racial, cultural and political tensions first sparked when Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer for his gated community in Sanford, Fla., shot the unarmed black teenager as he was walking back to his house with a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles.

The prosecution's stumbling start already has some speculating on what the reaction will be if the defendant is found not guilty of second-degree murder.

The latest blow to the state's narrative came Monday and Tuesday, with Detective Chris Serino, the lead investigator in the case, testifying that Mr. Zimmerman hoped there was video evidence of the altercation to prove Trayvon was the aggressor.

"He seemed to be very elated in the prospect of there being some sort of videotape," Detective Serino said in court Tuesday morning. Earlier, he had said that either Mr. Zimmerman was telling the truth about being attacked by Trayvon, or he's a "complete, pathological liar."

From the prosecution's perspective, other witnesses have, at best, painted a murky picture of the fight between Mr. Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer, and Trayvon, which ended with the defendant drawing his gun and mortally wounding the teen. At worst, testimony has irreparably harmed the state's case and made a murder conviction a long shot.

"They do have their work cut out for them. This case is difficult because the facts seem to be ambiguous," said Montre Carodine, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School and a scholar of race relations. The prosecution is "having a hard time making their case. But there's still a ways to go, and you never know what a jury is thinking."

As the case moves forward, a key factor will be whether the all-female jury relies heavily on emotion, Ms. Carodine said.

"If you can get jurors to connect with Trayvon Martin's mother, they do have a chance of getting a conviction," she said. "I think that's what it's going to come down to — who [the jury] is able to connect with."

Emotion aside, prosecutors Tuesday tried to revive their case by resurrecting an interview with Mr. Zimmerman conducted by Fox News' Sean Hannity five months after the incident. During the interview, Mr. Zimmerman said he'd never heard of Florida's "stand your ground" law, the self-defense doctrine that's key to his defense.

Prosecutors are seeking to introduce some of Mr. Zimmerman's community college records to prove that he learned about the law in criminal justice classes and was at least somewhat familiar with police procedure.

They also brought to the stand medical professionals to testify that Mr. Zimmerman may have exaggerated the force with which Trayvon struck him, and the number of times his head was cracked off the pavement.

But some observers believe the prosecution already is sunk and cannot overcome reasonable doubt that Mr. Zimmerman was, in fact, acting in his own defense.

Well-known defense attorney Mark Geragos said during a CNN interview Monday night said the case "is close to being over."

"This prosecution is dead in the water," he added.

The state's key witness, Trayvon's longtime friend Rachel Jeantel, was widely criticized for her performance on the stand last week, often coming across as confrontational with defense attorneys and making the now infamous assertion that the term "cracker" isn't racial in nature. Trayvon was on the phone with Ms. Jeantel shortly before he died and she testified that he told her he was being followed by a "cracker."

With Detective Serino still on the stand Tuesday, the defense team hammered home physical factors that seem to support the defendant's version of events.

The bullet wound on Trayvon's body didn't line up precisely with the bullet hole on his shirt, perhaps indicating he was on top of Mr. Zimmerman at the time of the shooting.

That would seem to support the defense's contention that Trayvon was the aggressor and first attacked Mr. Zimmerman, pinning him to the ground and striking his head off the pavement.

The defense argues it was only then, in an act of self-defense, that he drew his gun and shot the teen.

Detective Serino's testimony, along with that from other witnesses, has offered more confusion to an already cloudy picture of exactly what happened on the night Trayvon was killed.

That confusion was, to a lesser degree, obvious even before the trial began. Because of that, Ms. Carodine and other observers were surprised prosecutors decided to seek a murder conviction, rather than charging Mr. Zimmerman with a lesser offense such as manslaughter.

"What he did doesn't sound like murder to me. I have a problem with what he did, but I wouldn't call that murder," she said.

Horace Cooper, co-chairman of the black conservative group Project 21, said the state has overreached and that media hype is partly to blame.

"The first week of the Zimmerman trial demonstrates the perils of a rush to prosecution," Mr. Cooper said. "It is remarkable, with the deficiencies in the case, that the state ever chose to bring it."

Whichever way the case turns out, there's likely to be a backlash, according to Ms. Carodine.

"This case is going to be one of those watershed moments in our history when it comes to race relations. If there is an acquittal, I do think there will be an outcry from a number not just in the black community but also among people who sympathize with some of the struggles for racial equality in this country," she said.

"Whichever way it goes, there's going to be an outcry from the side that loses. I don't think that's something we can avoid," she said.

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