The discovery materials which the defense finally received from the prosecution after a long and arduous fight revealed Trayvon Martin to be deeply into drugs, and a young man who reveled in street fighting, and more. (Didn’t seem to have much respect for women, either.) None of that was allowed in.
The reason tracks to something found in the Federal Rules of Evidence in the Rule 404 series, particularly Rule 404(b). Among other things, it means that prior bad acts of the person you harmed, IF THEY WERE NOT KNOWN TO YOU AT THE TIME YOU HARMED HIM, cannot be used by you to defend inflicting that harm. This is because, being unknown to you, they had no part in your decision to act as you did, and it is that act and that decision for which you are being judged at trial.
Some courts have disagreed with that. The Massachusetts State Supreme Court in two precedent cases, and the Arizona State Supreme Court in one, have ruled that if the deceased had attacked people previously a manner similar to how the defendant described being attacked by him, that the jury SHOULD be allowed to know. (There was reference in the discovery materials to Martin having punched out a school bus driver.) There is no such precedent in Florida that I know of. State Supreme Court decisions from other jurisdictions do not bind on other states, but can be used as persuasive argument during a pre-trial motion in limine to allow such evidence.
Back in 1984, I was on the defense team as an expert witness called by two of the finest attorneys I’ve ever worked with, the great Roy Black and the brilliant Mark Seiden. Mark and I later served two years together as co-vice chairs of the forensic evidence committee of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, and Roy’s courtroom accomplishments are legend. It would be worth your time to read Roy’s autobiography “Black’s Law.” In the 1984 trial, Roy and Mark defended Miami Police Officer Luis Alvarez against Manslaughter charges in the shooting death of one Nevell “Snake” Johnson. (There were interesting parallels between that case and Zimmerman’s. An officer of Hispanic descent had shot a 20-year-old black man who was reaching for a gun as that officer and another attempted to arrest him. The shooting triggered a race riot. A scapegoat was needed. Janet Reno, then State’s Attorney there, indicted the cop.)
In that case, the state had portrayed the late Mr. Johnson as a perfect specimen of innocent young manhood, and this is what opened the door for the judge to consider the 40-page memorandum of law that Black and his team put before the bench. The judge set aside 404(b) to allow the defense to rebut that characterization, and the jury got to hear an elderly black woman describe the terror she had experienced when Nevell Johnson had made her the victim of an armed robbery. To make a long story short, Alvarez was acquitted. (Which triggered another race riot, but that’s another story.)
The lead prosecutor in Zimmerman, Bernie de la Rionda, was too smart to open that door. I understand why Judge Nelson did not allow evidence of prior bad acts by Trayvon Martin to go in front of the jury. Interestingly, though – at the very end of the trial, when it was too late for the defense to do much of anything about it – second seat prosecutor John Guy made the state’s final argument to the jury, a soliloquy rife with references to Martin, who was much taller than the man he attacked, as a “child.” “Child” was also used in this respect by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the verdict, and was Martin family lawyer Ben Crump’s refrain from the beginning.
Yet the Trayvon Martin who emerged from the state’s reluctantly-provided evidence, the evidence the jury didn’t see, was something else entirely. (Discovery available here.)
If Guy, Bloomberg, or Crump had ever met 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in life, and called him a helpless “child” to his face, I strongly suspect Martin would have kicked them in the balls.