SANFORD, Fla. -- Prosecutors in the second-degree murder trial of George Zimmerman scrambled Tuesday to undo damage to their case by one of their leading witnesses, a Sanford police officer who interviewed the defendant hours after he fatally shot Trayvon Martin.
Officer Chris Serino had testified under cross-examination Monday that Mr. Zimmerman seemed to be telling the truth when he said he had fired his gun in self-defense. The officer's remarks made for a dramatic moment in the trial -- and clearly benefited the defense -- but drew no immediate objection from prosecutors. The court then recessed for the day.
But early Tuesday, citing case law, the prosecution successfully argued that Officer Serino's comments about Mr. Zimmerman's truthfulness should be disregarded by the jury. The judge then instructed the jurors, who are being sequestered during the trial, to ignore the officer's statement -- nearly 17 hours after he made it.
Officer Serino's testimony, in the second week of the Seminole County Court trial, was the latest setback for prosecutors, whose witnesses have repeatedly helped bolster the defense's case. Mr. Zimmerman has said he shot the unarmed 17-year-old in self-defense as he was being attacked on a drizzly night in February 2012. Prosecutors say Mr. Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic, racially profiled the teenager, who was black, and followed him through the townhouse complex where Mr. Zimmerman lived and Trayvon Martin, of Miami, was visiting.
On Monday, jurors watched and listened to audio and visual recordings of a calm and willing Mr. Zimmerman being interviewed by police shortly after the shooting. One officer testified that Mr. Zimmerman had shown no trace of malice or ill intent. After prosecutors probed inconsistencies in Mr. Zimmerman's story -- he said Trayvon had jumped out of the bushes, although no bushes were found at the place he indicated -- two police officers who took the stand said discrepancies were slight, and that the broad narrative of self-defense offered by Mr. Zimmerman remained largely unchanged.
Mark Osterman, a federal air marshal who described Mr. Zimmerman as "the best friend I've ever had," and who wrote a book about the shooting, recounted Tuesday what his friend had told him about the events of Feb. 26, 2012, the day of the killing.
Mr. Osterman's account largely matched what Mr. Zimmerman -- who was photographed bleeding after the killing -- told police. There was one exception: Mr. Osterman's contention that, according to Mr. Zimmerman, Trayvon had grabbed his gun, but that he managed to get it back. That contradicted Mr. Zimmerman's account to police, in which he said the teen seemed to be reaching for his gun.
Other pieces of testimony may also have reflected poorly on Mr. Zimmerman. Officer Serino, who took the stand again Tuesday, said expletives Mr. Zimmerman used as he was pursuing Trayvon connoted ill will -- a necessary component in a second-degree murder conviction.
The police officers were also clearly disturbed that Mr. Zimmerman, a community watch volunteer, got out of his car to pursue Trayvon on foot, especially after a police operator had told him he need not do so. Last week, a young woman who had been on the phone with the teen that night testified that he told her he was being followed by a "creepy" man, and that she later heard her friend crying, "Get off, get off."
One of the clearest witness accounts of the fight that proved damaging to the prosecution came from John Good, a neighbor of Mr. Zimmerman's. He testified last week that he saw a person in dark clothes on top of and repeatedly striking someone light skinned, who was lying on the ground and wearing red or white. Mr. Zimmerman was wearing a red jacket that night.
Jurors also heard Tuesday from Valerie Rao, a medical examiner in Jacksonville, Fla., who concluded after studying photos that Mr. Zimmerman's injuries were "very insignificant" and "not life threatening," and that scrapes on the back of his head could have come from just one strike against the sidewalk. Her testimony cast doubt on Mr. Zimmerman's claim that Trayvon struck him repeatedly, banging his head on the pavement, causing him to fear for his life. But under cross-examination by Mark O'Mara, one of Mr. Zimmerman's lawyers, Dr. Rao conceded that his injuries could have come from multiple blows.
The state also presented a 2012 television interview with Mr. Zimmerman by Fox News host Sean Hannity, in which Mr. Zimmerman recounted his version of events, before adding, "I feel that it was all God's plan" -- as Mr. O'Mara squirmed by his side at the defense table.
The Sanford police did not initially charge Mr. Zimmerman in the killing. Six weeks later, Mr. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder. After hearing the testimony, however, many legal experts this week said the state had overreached, and that it should have filed manslaughter charges instead. The jury can still find Mr. Zimmerman guilty of manslaughter, but it would fall to prosecutors to argue for that result, without appearing to concede a weakness in their case.