Considering the copious pre-trial media coverage, I suspect most outside observers have already formed personal suppositions about what happened the February 2012 night George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin.
Now that Zimmerman’s second-degree murder trial has started, what’s less clear is how his stunning weight gain over the past year — during a CNN interview, Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara placed it between 120 and 125 pounds — will be interpreted by those charged with determining his legal fate: the six-woman jury.
When Zimmerman was first questioned by police immediately following Martin’s death, he was lean and appeared relatively fit, stating he stood 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighed 194 pounds.
This would mean he now tips the scales in excess 300 pounds — well over the threshold for a man of his height to be considered morbidly obese.
In more than three decades of being a trial lawyer, Al LaSorte, a partner with the West Palm Beach firm Shutts & Bowen, says he’s can’t recall having ever seen such a swift and dramatic physical transformation in one of his clients — or any others, for that matter.
“It’s like a different guy from the one charged is being tried,” LaSorte says.
On CNN, body-language expert Patti Wood observed that the trim 2012 version of Zimmerman appeared “comfortable and powerful” in his movements. In initial court appearances, he would “elongate” his body in a show of confidence and power.
Wood believes the movements of the heavyset Zimmerman of last week came across as “agitated,” yet also made the impression that he “appears somewhat comfortable with this extra weight.”
Wood further speculated that the vast divergence in Zimmerman’s physical appearance could “in an odd way work for him.”
She theorized that, in contrast to when Zimmerman appeared to be “a lean, mean fighting machine” who presumably wouldn’t need to use a gun during a physical confrontation, in his current portly condition, he’d seem “less threatening.”
The combination of Zimmerman’s apparent comfort with his excessive girth and Wood’s speculation that it could work to his advantage led reporter Randi Kaye to wonder aloud if the weight gain had been an intentional defense strategy.
Literally soften up Zimmerman for the jury, if you will.
Attorney O’Mara attributed Zimmerman’s massive weight gain to the fact “we all handle stress differently.”
And local attorney LaSorte, who has conferred with numerous jury consultants throughout his trial career, believes that not only won’t the weight gain benefit Zimmerman, it will likely hurt him with the jury.
“First, jurors tend to form favorable opinions of those they can relate to,” LaSorte explains. “So, extremes of any kind, especially in appearance, are not something you want to create.”
In addition, LaSorte believes Zimmerman’s added poundage will potentially become problematic when jurors have to consider his affirmative “stand your ground” defense.
“In order for jurors to accept Zimmerman’s ‘stand your ground’ defense, he has to prove, and they have believe, he had legitimate reason to fear for his life,” LaSorte says.
At the time of the physical confrontation, Zimmerman outweighed the slender, 6-foot, 1-inch teen by some 30 pounds.
LaSorte says that, while the jury will certainly be shown images of the lighter (and thus, theoretically, more vulnerable) Zimmerman, seeing daily, in person, how big he now looks will be difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile.
“If I’m Zimmerman’s attorney, my biggest fear is that, either consciously or sub-consciously, the jurors are saying to themselves, ‘How could this huge man be in fear for his life during a fight with a skinny teen?’” explains LaSorte.
In other words, concludes LaSorte: “If he was my client, gaining 120 pounds would’ve been the last thing I’d want him to do.”