The George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case is a tricky one for me. On the one hand, I obviously have a pro-defense bent. If George Zimmerman were my client, I would argue the heck out of self-defense. But my defense experience actually leads me to be more sympathetic to Martin. The pro-Zimmerman folks tend to describe Martin as a thug, a gang-banger, etc, even suggesting that the world is a better place without him. This is how people speak of my clients, so that makes me identify with Martin. Then there's my antipathy for guns and those who run around thinking they are making their neighborhoods safer by patrolling with concealed weapons. Thinking there might be such a guy running around my neighborhood makes me feel less safe. In the end, even if at the moment Zimmerman shot Martin it really was a matter of life or death, I personally come down on the side of it being Zimmerman's own fault. There wouldn't have been a shooting if Zimmerman hadn't brought the gun. There wouldn't have been a confrontation if Zimmerman hadn't followed a teenager who was minding his own business.
So it was with all of that in mind that I paid attention to this week's pre-trial hearings. Zimmerman's attorneys found evidence that Martin had been suspended from school, that he was involved in organized fights or texted his friends about those fights, that he smoked pot. It certainly seems reasonable at first blush that this evidence would be useful to the jury in determining whether Zimmerman acted in self-defense because it tells us something about the personality of Zimmerman's combatant. It corroborates Zimmerman's portrayal of Martin and thus lends credibility to Zimmerman's account.
The judge, though, ruled all that evidence was inadmissible (though the defense can ask again at trial as things unfold). The judge's reasoning is sound, based on the long-standing doctrine of self-defense. The question for self-defense as it has been stated for centuries is what would a reasonable person in the defendant's position believe? Would a reasonable person who knew what the defendant knew at that moment feel the need to resort to potentially deadly force? Therein lies the explanation for why the evidence about Martin's past was deemed by the trial judge to be irrelevant. None of that information about Martin was known to Zimmerman, so it sheds no light on what a reasonable person in Zimmerman's position would have believed.
I'm not sure any of this evidence would have been ruled admissible even if Zimmerman knew about it going into his encounter with Martin. Much of the evidence revolves around Martin being part of a circle of friends who apparently engaged in organized fights, whether they were some kind of Fight Club-style thing or stupid boys pretending they were boxers, I don't know. If Zimmerman knew Martin and his buddies fancied themselves boxers or liked to set up fights with other groups of guys, that still doesn't have anything to do with whether Martin or Zimmerman was the aggressor in this non-organized confrontation.
One of the pieces of evidence allegedly involves Martin watching as two friends beat up a homeless guy. Conceivably, I could see how that could be admissible in a world where a) Zimmerman knew about it and b) it started as the homeless guy making eyes at Martin and his friends or following them in a way they didn't like, a la what happened with Zimmerman.
As for the corroboration argument, that this evidence lends credibility to Zimmerman's story, it's been a long time since I've had a self-defense issue, so I haven't researched anything like that. But it's kind of sounding like character evidence. In my state, specific instances of conduct other than a conviction can't come in to show a person has a bad character trait. (I would have quoted it, but it's frankly a nearly indecipherable sentence.) So witnesses could testify that Martin had a reputation for fighting or for violence, but couldn't talk about specific instances. But the question still comes down to whether Martin having a reputation for fighting is relevant.
I understand why Zimmerman's lawyers want the evidence in. I would be making that argument for him if he were my client. I understand why the state opposed it and why the court ruled the way it did. Though the defense attorney in me really should be with the defense, in my heart of hearts, I'm with the prosecution on this one. I really don't think it matters how bad of a seed Trayvon Martin was, what kind of trouble he got into in school, whether he smoked pot, etc. He wouldn't be dead if George Zimmerman hadn't followed him with a gun. I just can't find a lot of sympathy for him, which makes me feel like a bad defender.
UPDATE: Ooh, so the video of Martin's friends beating up on a homeless guy? Wasn't that at all! It was video of two homeless guys fighting each other over a bike. Martin witnessed it and whipped out his cell phone. This seems to be the common modern experience: witness something, break out the phone's recorder. How many times have we heard of people doing this when an arrest is happening? I won't fault a teenager for not getting into the middle of a fight to break it up. Maybe the phone would have been better used to call the police before someone got seriously hurt. But maybe someone else was already doing that so Martin turned to the recorder. Either way, this pretty much settles it that evidence about this incident is totally irrelevant at Zimmerman's trial.