Florida courtoom makes mockery of a circus

Brian Fri, 2013-07-19 12:31

Of all the outrages that occurred during the kangaroo court that was the George Zimmerman trial, here's one that really sticks in my craw. The judge allowed a "close friend" of Zimmerman's to claim in testimony that his experience as a soldier during the invasion of Vietnam (nb. at least 40 years ago) left him with the ability to recognize the voices of people who are in great distress.

(Yes, I know "kangaroo" courts are usually slanted the other way. Bear with me.)

Vietnam vet John Donnelly then went on to testify that the voice calling for help on a 911 recording was certainly that of Mr. Zimmerman, and not that of Trayvon Martin, the young black teenager who was Zimmerman's victim.

(Trayvon Martin, you'll recall, was the 14-year-old, 140-lb black teenager who went to a convenience store in Florida to buy a drink and snack, and then was stalked, attacked, and shot to death by the 260-lb Mr. Zimmerman, who claims to be a "neighbourhood watcher." A neighbourhood watcher who carries a gun. Zimmerman's defence rested on the argument that despite the size advantage, Martin was getting the better of the fight, to the point where the neighbourhood watch behemoth was afraid for his life.)

The identity of the voice on the recording was a crucial point in Mr. Zimmerman's defence, Someone was calling for help. If it was Martin, then clearly Zimmerman would have had very little with which to mount a defence. Mr. Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, identified the voice as that of her son, and you'd think she'd know. She's actually heard Trayvon's voice. In order to acquit Mr. Zimmerman, the jury had to dismiss the testimony of Trayvon's own mother, and accept the opposite, that the voice was that of Zimmerman.

(I haven't heard the recording myself, but I'm guessing the voice involved was relatively high-pitched, more like that of a 14-year-old than a 29-year-old 260-pounder. Zimmerman's claim to have been in distress helps here as well.)

But on comes Donnelly. What are we to make of his claim to special ability? He claims to be able to recognize the voices of people in distress (in one report, even though when in distress they don't sound like themselves), based on service in Vietnam. In my opinion, this is simply preposterous. It should not have gone unchallenged.

Responding to questions from defense attorney Mark O'Mara, Donnelly described his experience as a combat medic in Vietnam, saying "you can distinguish the screams for help" of men who are wounded or in life-threatening situations. "You know, when it's the men you eat with, the men you sleep with, you know who it's going to be before you get there," Donnelly said.

(He leaves out that it's part of a combat medic's job to know where the men in his patrol are, so when someone cries out for help, the direction of the cry plays a very large role in such determinations. We also don't know if he's "eaten with" or "slept with" George Zimmerman.)

Given the thousands of veterans who have served as combat medics, you'd think we'd have heard of this special ability before. There ought to have been reunions of them, complete with screaming-voices guessing games. But Google away, and you'll not find any other people making similar claims. It is, not to exaggerate, breath-taking in its chutzpah. Was this guy's ability to recognize voices in distress certified by any group of professionals highly qualified in the subject, and capable of rendering a judgement on whether he actually had this recognized ability?

Er, no. He was just allowed to say he had it, and then he blithely went on to say that the voice on the tape calling for help was certainly Mr. Zimmerman, and not Trayvon Martin (whose voice, of course, he had never heard either in our out of distress).

He was allowed to enter a courtroom, claim to have an ability that no one's ever heard of before, and then testify. Now where the heck was the judge when the defence was allowed to present an "expert witness" through the back door? What was the prosecutor doing, tapping out another staff firing on her Blackberry?

That is, after all, what the defence was foisting on the court, a witness who could testify as an "expert," because of his special, unheard-of ability to identify the voice of his good friend Zimmerman's voice on a recording. Many jurisdictions have rules against "expert witness" ambush defences. The other side, defence or prosecution, have to be given disclosure that an expert will be called, and what her/his testimony will be. Does Florida have such restrictions? Maybe not.

Reporters on the scene described Donnelly's testimony as "very effective, touching." Presumably it didn't hurt that Donnelly was blubbering a bit, dabbing at his eyes with Kleenex. He also said he wished he didn't have his ability, a very nice touch.

To be fair, the defence had a parade of witnesses testifying that the voice was Zimmerman's, including Mr. Donnelly's wife, a former co-worker, Zimmerman's best friend and author of a book about the case, the best friend's wife, and Zimmerman's mother and uncle. This is all fair enough, and the jury has to decide whether to believe them or Trayvon Martin's mother and brother.

The defence should have been forced to decide whether they were putting Donnelly forward as a "close friend" (and donor to the defence's expenses), or an expert witness.

But he was allowed to do both, with absolutely no examination of his so-called ability or credentials. It made a mockery of Florida courtrooms.

Many will say it made a mockery of what was already a circus. I wouldn't disagree.


Orlando Sentinel