With the trial of George Zimmerman for the killing of Travon Martin now underway, we can see that most of what is happening in the trial is not that different from most other murder trials one could see on an average day in any Florida courthouse.
But this week, we have seen that there is one big difference. In this case, the jury has the opportunity to know what Zimmerman said, from an actual recording of the actual police interrogation. They can see the questions police asked, the answers Zimmerman gave, and his tone and demeanor when he gave the answers . The jurors will know Zimmerman’s exact words, and whether he hesitated or seemed confident he gave an answer. They will know all of this for themselves, without it being filtered through a police officer’s memory or note taking. (In fact, we can all experience this first-hand evidence; use the link above to pull the interrogation up on YouTube. You can also find a recording of Zimmerman’s re-enactment of the shooting for police. )
That’s the difference: in Florida, the usual case wouldn’t necessarily include a recording of the interrogation, because Florida does not require recording of interrogations. Even in murder cases, state law does not mandate electronic recording of the interrogation process. Twenty states require recording of interrogations in at least some cases under their laws, but Florida is not one of them.
I’m not taking a position here on what’s in the recordings, or whether the jury should believe Zimmerman or not. What I am saying is that the jury can make up its own mind about what was said, under what conditions, and whether it represents the truth. That’s what recording of interrogations does for the trial process: it improves the quality of evidence that the jury sees, and it means that bogus claims — whether they come from the defendant or from the police — have much less traction.
In Zimmerman’s case, there are other recordings too, and the jury can see those as well. But in most serious cases in Florida, the jury will have to rely on the imperfect recollections and notes of a detective who was involved in the interrogation. And that’s just not good enough, with the stakes so high.