Grading the Zimmerman trial closing arguments

NEED TO KNOW
  • Jason Johnson in an HLN contributor, professor and author
  • He grades both the defense and prosecution teams on their closing arguments in the George Zimmerman trial
Grading the Zimmerman trial closing arguments
Jason Johnson

Monday night at 10 p.m ET on a special edition of HLN After Dark, Vinnie Politan is one-on-one with the Zimmerman prosecution team to try to find out what happened. HLN has been all over this case, and nothing is off-limits in this primetime interview.

Editor’s note: Jason Johnson is an HLN contributor and professor of political science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of “Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell.” He is on Twitter.

The closing arguments of the prosecution and defense in the George Zimmerman trial were so starkly different in style and presentation, that grading each lawyer individually is almost impossible.

Coming soon to HLN: Georgia v. Andrea Sneiderman

The defense and prosecution had vastly different tasks and challenges heading into closing statements, so the criteria upon which they are graded have to be broken down into two categories. First, a closing statement is an opportunity to shore up any perceived weaknesses in your overall trial presentation. Second, a closing argument is meant to convince the jury of your side of the case, with whatever stylistic, emotional or intellectual means are at a lawyer’s disposal.

With that in mind, here are the grades for the three closing arguments in the Zimmerman trial.

Closing argument for the prosecution by Bernie de la Rionda:

Shoring up weaknesses: Public sentiment after viewing this trial has been that the prosecution delivered an uneven and sometimes downright weak case against Zimmerman. Considering that, de la Rionda did an amazing job in his closing statement. He was passionate, organized, compelling and most of all, he delivered a narrative to the jury that had been missing in much of the State’s case up until that point. His grade in part reflects the low expectations that the State had already set with their trial work.
Grade: B+

Proving their case: The State didn’t seem to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had “hatred, ill-will, or spite” toward Trayvon Martin. Given the incredible difficulty in literally proving what was in Zimmerman’s mind and heart, it would have taken Sam Watterson from “Law & Order” to make second-degree murder stick. However, de la Rionda did prove Zimmerman was lying and successfully made the case that Zimmerman was not in a life or death situation, wherein killing Martin was his only option. Consequently, he did an exceptional job in setting the table for the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Grade: B

Closing argument from the defense by Mark O’Mara:

Shoring up weaknesses: O’Mara all but acknowledged his case’s biggest weakness in the closing statement. He said that if the jury applied common sense to this case, Zimmerman would be going to jail. However, he said their job is not to apply common sense, but to decide if the State had proven guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. It was a bold strategy and relied a great deal on the sense of civic duty and responsibility over what they actually believed to be true based on evidence and presentation. I don’t believe O’Mara convinced anyone to overlook their gut instincts in favor of the law, but he did restate the jury’s responsibilities well.
Grade: B

Proving their case: Without question, O’Mara’s closing argument was dry and somewhat boring, which was actually fantastic for the defense. Why? His closing sounded repetitive and dull because the defense had successfully hammered home its key points so well throughout the trial, that a closing argument was almost perfunctory. The fact that his final statements were so repetitive was an indicator of how successfully the defense team had delivered their narrative over the last two weeks. O’Mara’s use of props was effective, if sometimes a bit overboard, and he certainly brought up reasonable doubt about the second-degree murder charge. He was, however, much less successful in making the case that self-defense was an effective defense for second-degree murder and manslaughter.
Grade: A

Final rebuttal from the prosecution by John Guy

Shoring up weaknesses: Guy’s rebuttal is the epitome of why this case has been hard to predict by outside analysts. Rather than rebut O’Mara’s contention that common sense should be thrown out the window, Guy passionately and emotionally doubled down that a common sense view of the evidence proves the State’s case. He pointed out that Martin was more afraid than Zimmerman, and that Zimmerman’s version of when and how the gun was used was physically impossible. Guy made an excellent case for the jury that they should not leave their emotions, experiences and instincts at the door when reviewing evidence. His excellent discussion of race, including using a rhetorical trick from Matthew McConaughey’s final speech from “At Time to Kill,” bolstered any weakness in the common sense vs. facts argument.
Grade: A

Proving their case: Guy’s final statement is hamstrung by the same weaknesses that have plagued the prosecution throughout its entire case. Proving that Zimmerman had hatred in his heart is almost impossible. However, showing that Zimmerman was guilty of manslaughter was knocked out of the park by his close. His signature phrase, “This case is not about ‘Standing Your Ground’, it’s about staying in your car -- like he [Zimmerman] was supposed to do,” exploded on social media and likely struck a chord with the jurors as well. The greatest fear of the Zimmerman defense team is that jurors will believe that had Zimmerman never gotten out of his car, none of this would have happened, and thus, Martin’s death was a choice, not inevitability. When you combine the emotion, relevant pop culture references and overall presentation, Guy definitely made the case for the lesser charge.
Grade: A+

In the end, the jury will make the final decision about who they believe made a better case and a better close. Both legal teams went into their final statements with both confidence and concerns. It is now up to the jury to decide who shored up their weaknesses and demonstrated their strengths better. 

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