12:00pm

Tue April 3, 2012
Law

Zimmerman's Lawyer: Don't Rush To Judgement

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. My thanks to my colleague Jacki Lyden for sitting in for me these past few days. Later this hour, we will talk about President Obama's meeting with North American leaders at the White House on Monday. We are going to focus on the U.S. relationship with Mexico. But first, we are going to continue our coverage of the death of Trayvon Martin and its aftermath. He, of course, is the unarmed Florida teen who was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in late February.

The case has sparked protests all over the country, as well as debate over self-defense laws and the role of race. Trayvon Martin was African-American and George Zimmerman is white and of Hispanic heritage. And to this point, Mr. Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime. Last week, we heard from Martin's father Tracy Martin and attorney Benjamin Crump, who's assisting the Martin family and pressing authorities to bring charges in the case. And as we mentioned at that time, we also wanted to hear from George Zimmerman and those speaking on his behalf.

Today, we hear from Craig Sonner. He's George Zimmerman's attorney. Mr. Sonner has emphasized that while his client has not spoken publicly, he is not eluding authorities and will surrender peacefully if called upon to do so. We spoke with Mr. Sonner yesterday about the case and his client.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Sonner. Thanks so much.

CRAIG SONNER: You're welcome.

MARTIN: First of all, can we just ask how Mr. Zimmerman is doing?

SONNER: Well, I don't have any statements from Mr. Zimmerman to give at this time, but suffice to say, it's - he's going through a very stressful time, as well.

MARTIN: Did you know him before this? I just wondered if you had any way to compare his state of mind before to how he is now.

SONNER: No, it has been strictly an attorney-client type relationship. I mean, I'm getting to know him more and, of course, talking to other people who know him as the time goes on.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, we wanted to just deal with sort of the most recent events. Last week, ABC News released video showing your client being escorted by the police into the Sanford police station less than an hour after the shooting. Mr. Zimmerman had said that he'd sustained some injuries. Now, that video has now been enhanced, and it does appear that the top of Mr. Zimmerman's head was bloody, and we wondered how you interpret this information.

SONNER: Well, at this point, I'm not going to interpret any information. This case is well, you know, stands to be litigated, whether - we'll see whether charges are filed, if it goes to indictment and they return an indictment. But at this point, I can't really comment on any evidence in the case.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, in this country, trials are the place that facts are established. And given that there is such a wide-ranging difference in opinion, even among witnesses who were there who have spoken publicly, do you think that it is appropriate to take this case to trial so that the facts can be definitively established?

SONNER: In needs to - whether it goes to trial or not would be a decision that'll be made either a grand jury or the state attorney, the prosecutor in the case. But certainly, the way it's been portrayed in the media was not appropriate. There are rules of evidence. There are laws in this land that should be followed, and it hasn't been. And there have been a lot of misrepresentations and just a - and a rush to judgment and a rush to get any kind of story about this incident out to the public, and I think it's misrepresenting what is going on.

George Zimmerman is not a racist, and I believe once the evidence is out, it'll show that he acted in self-defense.

MARTIN: What do you mean this is not appropriate? Could you just be more specific about what exactly do you think is not appropriate?

SONNER: I think a lot of things that have been put out there are not accurate, and I think once the real investigation comes to light, I think everyone will see what really happened that night.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're continuing our coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting. We're speaking with Craig Sonner. He's the attorney representing George Zimmerman, the man accused of shooting Trayvon Martin. I wanted to ask your assessment of the issue that seems to be at the core of this. The argument around whether race played a role in this is one issue, and you've already expressed the view that you don't feel that you want to talk about that, or you feel that in your view, George Zimmerman is not a racist. So let's set that aside.

In the police tape where Mr. Zimmerman is speaking with the dispatch unit about Trayvon Martin and his view that he looks suspicious, the dispatcher asks Mr. Zimmerman not to pursue Trayvon Martin. And I'd like to play that just so that we are both clear about what it is that we're talking about here. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE CONVERSATION)

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: He's running.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He's running. Which way is he running?

ZIMMERMAN: Down towards the other entrance of the neighborhood.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK. Which entrance is that, that he's heading towards?

ZIMMERMAN: The back entrance. (beep)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Are you following him?

ZIMMERMAN: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Okay, we don't need you to do that.

ZIMMERMAN: Okay.

MARTIN: At the core of this, for many people, is this particular passage where the dispatcher tells Mr. Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin. And at that point, many people say: How is it possible that he's acting in self-defense if he's pursuing someone after having been told not to? Can you offer a perspective on that, whether you feel self-defense is appropriate, given those circumstances?

SONNER: Well, the one thing I will say - and this is more than I've said before - is that's not the whole 911 tape. But when the rest of the evidence comes out and the whole story is known, it will show what happened that night and not be left to speculation as to what happened. I think the rest of the investigation done by law enforcement will show that George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.

MARTIN: Earlier, though, it's been reported that you said you don't believe that the Stand Your Ground law - which is specific to Florida, although a number of other states have similar laws on the books - is not relevant to this case. I just want to clarify: Is that, in fact, your view, that you don't think it's relevant here?

SONNER: No. The Stand Your Ground law will be relevant in this case, and I think it will be applicable in this case. I think at one point, on a first review, I had made a misstatement. But upon further review as this goes on, I see that clearly, that it's my opinion that the Stand Your Ground law will come into play in this case.

MARTIN: Because?

SONNER: It shows that - I think the evidence will show that George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, and the statute will be applicable.

MARTIN: Even if he was pursuing the individual, even if he initiated the confrontation?

SONNER: Again, this will be a fact-specific case, and once the facts come out and not the speculation and not that has been put out in the media, once the facts are brought out by law enforcement, everyone will see what happened. And the evidence - there will be a complete picture of what happened that night, and I believe it'll show that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense.

MARTIN: Can you tell us what lead to your initial belief and why your feelings changed, or your view of the matter changed?

SONNER: My review of the - if you're referring to the statute...

MARTIN: Yes.

SONNER: My review of the statute, upon first blush, I was thinking more along the lines of the Castle Doctrine. And there was some question as to whether or not that the Castle Doctrine, when he was not in his home - I was thinking along that line. But I was always convinced it was self-defense. And on reviewing - I believe it's paragraph three of the statute, that will directly be relevant in this case.

MARTIN: I asked attorney Benjamin Crump this question, and I do of course understand that this matter, if it goes forward, is between the state of Florida and George Zimmerman. It's not a private matter between two parties. But since Mr. Crump raised this point, I do feel it's appropriate to raise it. His argument is that Trayvon Martin equally had a right to defend himself under the Stand Your Ground law. He made clear in a phone call that was - that his young lady friend shared with his attorney and with the family that he was on the phone with her at the time of the confrontation, that he was being followed by a man he did not recognize, a man who turned out to be armed. Didn't he equally have the right to defend himself under the law?

SONNER: Again, you're arguing evidence, and that'll be reserved for the trial here that'll be held in - if there's a trial at all in - here in Seminole County before a judge and a jury.

MARTIN: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us about Mr. Zimmerman that you feel has not been brought to light or has come to light, or that you feel has been misrepresented while we have the opportunity to speak with you?

SONNER: Yes, just that I - upon talking with different people who've known him - actually, people who are African-American. There was a woman with two children that - she had a 14-year-old son, 13-year-old daughter who George mentored and spent time with, and she had good things to say. And I asked her: Was he a racist? And she says no. Does he use racial slurs? She said no. And - but would you come forward and speak for him? And she would like to, but she's fearful of retribution and I don't know if she's ever going to be able to come forward or not because it'll - I don't know what the cost to her is going to be if she does put her name out there.

So - and I spoke to another friend of his that was African-American who said, you know, he would - when I was sick, he would come by and spend time with me when everybody else wasn't, and then as he recovered, you know, they became friends and worked - I forget what kind of job it was. And I asked him again, is he a racist? He said no. I said, does he use racial slurs? And he said no.

But again, as far as coming forward, there's so much backlash from the community from anyone who comes forward to speak on behalf of George Zimmerman that people are afraid to.

Joe Oliver was one of George Zimmerman's friends and he's come forward. He's an African-American man and he suffered the penalty of, you know, what the public is doing because he came forward on George Zimmerman's behalf. Again, Joe Oliver believes in George Zimmerman, does not believe he's a racist, has known him for several years and has worked with him and knows him and has put himself out there to speak on his behalf.

So this is not a race issue. Whatever transpired that evening, I think, will show that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor and that George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense and we need to get back to - let law enforcement do their job. Let the court system do its job.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go - and I apologize. I should have asked you this earlier. There has been a lot of discussion about Trayvon Martin's background and some issues in his school record that some people feel have been relevant to bring out through the media. What about Mr. Zimmerman's background? It has been reported that he's had two prior arrests, both of which involve allegations of violence - one, battery upon a police officer; the other, domestic violence related. Is that accurate? Did those two arrests occur and do you think that's relevant to how this case should be viewed?

SONNER: Since I haven't looked in his - I can't - I can neither confirm or deny any prior arrests of George Zimmerman. And at any rate...

MARTIN: Isn't that a matter of - isn't that a kind of a yes or no answer, a matter of fact or not fact at this point?

SONNER: That's - it's not - I've not - I've not looked - I've not done a criminal background check on George Zimmerman.

MARTIN: So you cannot just - you can't confirm or deny this information?

SONNER: That's what I just said. Yeah.

MARTIN: OK.

SONNER: I can't confirm or deny because I haven't done a criminal background check, but that wouldn't be something that would be admissible in court anyway.

MARTIN: It would not...

SONNER: No.

MARTIN: ...in your view. OK.

SONNER: No, it wouldn't. It wouldn't be...

MARTIN: It would not be.

SONNER: It would not be admissible in court.

MARTIN: Because those arrests, if they did occur, were expunged or were not adjudicated further?

SONNER: I don't believe that - unless it's a felony conviction, it's not going to be admissible in court.

MARTIN: I see. All right. Well, thank you for clarifying that. I do appreciate it. Craig Sonner is the attorney for George Zimmerman. That is the man who is accused of shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. That death has sparked widespread protests across the country and Mr. Sonner joined us from his office in Altamonte Springs, Florida.

Mr. Sonner, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us.

SONNER: All right. You're welcome. Thank you.

MARTIN: And of course this is a rapidly developing story and we will continue to follow it. You can find more of our coverage on our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.