PRINT PAGEZimmerman: Primacy & Recency

Written by Roy Black

My advice to trial lawyers – throw out the trial advocacy books filled with old wives’ tales, and study human behavior. The opening arguments in the Zimmerman trial are a good example of using the psychological principles of primacy and recency. The audience remembers the first thing you say and the last far better than that sandwiched in the middle. And the impression the jurors get from the opening colors their perception of the evidence as it unfolds.

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The state painted Zimmerman as an out-of-control thug. “Fucking punks. These assholes always get away… From those hate-filled words that he used to describe a perfect stranger.” He “profiled, followed and murdered an unarmed teenager.” He “stalked” Trayvon Martin. He wantonly disregarded the order of the police dispatcher. Imagine this as your first impression of a person.

This character assassination had to be answered and overcome in the jurors’ minds. Perhaps something along these lines:

George Zimmerman is a responsible young man. He went to college. He has a job. He is married. And he volunteers to help his friends and neighbors by being the police liaison to his neighborhood watch.

He lives in a neighborhood beset by crime. On this evening he sees a suspicious stranger sneaking around his town home complex, his face and head covered, and rather than ignoring the possible threat to his neighbors, he calls the police. He asks them to send help. But that takes a while. He follows the man at a distance all the time informing the police dispatcher what he is doing.

Did he intend to commit murder that night? Did he act with a “depraved mind” which Florida law defines as done from “ill will,” “hatred,” “spite,” or “evil intent” such that is shows “an indifference to human life?”

The State prosecutor never answered that question; never once did he explain George’s alleged intent to kill, but I will. Who would call the police, ask them to send an officer and give them a detailed description of everything you were doing if you intended to kill?

[while speaking to the jury I would put two photographs on the powerpoint screen]

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After the shooting George sat with the police for many hours and fully explained what happened. He told them that he shot the suspect only after the suspect knocked him down, punched him and slammed his head repeatedly into the concrete. Only when he feared for his life and feared the suspect was going to grab his gun, did he take his weapon out of its holster and shoot him. Not in ill will, hatred or evil intent, but from fear for his own life.

This perception of George Zimmerman is radically different than the first one. The jury will give a completely different intention to his actions based on what they take from the opening. What they hear first has a disproportionate impact, either positive or negative, on how they view his actions as it comes from the witnesses.

And Zimmerman has the advantage of the recency effect. In the final argument the state gets to go first and last but the opening argument is the only time the defendant gets the last word. There is no rebuttal. The jury will be influenced by the last thing they hear.

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9 Comments to Zimmerman: Primacy & Recency

  1. Marilynn's Gravatar Marilynn
    June 27, 2013 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

    I do believe that George Zimmerman would love to have you as his attorney. What you are saying sure makes more sense than the knock knock joke!

  2. June 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Sounds like you’ve made a good argument for your proposition. The knock knock joke opening remarks by the defense may have had some effect although the only one I can think of was that it may have had the jury scratching their heads as to what the defense was doing. Ironically, this in and of itself may have caused the jury to quickly take their mind off the prosecutors opening remarks and start questioning the defense attorneys competence or maybe their own.

  3. Sharon's Gravatar Sharon
    June 27, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    If there was no light to see and it was raining how do we know that Trayvon saw the gun. Trayvon had a hoodie because it is his culture to wear it like that and it was RAINING and 7pm in the evening. George had no idea that Trayvon was a criminal. Trayvon was studying on how to fight so how come he was the one that died? There are rules to follow for a neighborhood watch person to follow and Zimmerman did not follow, he had lived in that neighborhood for years and all of a sudden he does not know the streets? I find that hard to believe. Trayvon may have been taller but Zimmerman had weight on his side. Now we know that Zimmerman did follow Martin and approached him. As a person living in a gated community with guards and neighborhood watch, I go out at 2-3 AM to get my mail or walk around if I can’t sleep. If the police who at times are sitting in the post office area do not bother to look up to check me out, Zimmerman had a problem with someone walking around (when a store is nearby) in his hood. Every place has break in even in my upscale gated community. There was no proof Trayvon was doing anything wrong.

    • Ronald Amon's Gravatar Ronald Amon
      July 1, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      The neighbor said it all when he saw Trevon on top of Zimmerman doing MMA known as “ground and pound.” This clip says it all:
      “Neighbor Jonathan Good said it appeared the unarmed teen was straddling Zimmerman, while another neighbor, Jonathan Manalo, said Zimmerman seemed credible when he said immediately after the fight that he had shot Martin in self-defense. Officer Tim Smith testified that Zimmerman’s backside was covered in grass and wetter than his front side.”

      What we don’t need is a pollyanna attitude that defies reality and would otherwise paint a beast into a benign hoodie clad passerby with no malicious intent. The Pollyanna Principle (positive bias) could convict an innocent man.

  4. David S.'s Gravatar David S.
    June 28, 2013 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    This ridiculous. Trayvon is in a primarily white community.AT NIGHT. I don’t believe ppl commonly wear hoodies out at night in this neighborhood. Hoodies r worn in the “hood” so this guy stood out like a sore thumb. No.wonder Z started to track him. There had been a number of recent break ins. So Z called the popo and stayed on the phone with them, but he knew how long it often tskes them to show up and he didn’t want to lose track of this suspicious character, so u can’t blame him for not backing off. ROY has nailed it and the defense shud have painted the very picture he suggested !!! Too bad Z doesn’t have RB on his team, but maybe they can icorporate some of his ideas in closing argument.

  5. June 28, 2013 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Wow, if that’s the evidence, then the jury should acquit Zimmerman fairly quickly. (I am not very familiar with the evidence, although I have heard a lot of political rhetoric.) In Georgia, if there is any evidence that the defendant acted in self-defense, then the State must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The Defendant does not have to prove self-defense, but rather there only has to be some evidence of it. Is it the same in Florida?

  6. June 28, 2013 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

    Well said. Game set and match! Do you by any chance do traffic tickets?

  7. July 3, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    One more thought on primacy and recency: I was trying a murder case a few years ago, and my client had a prior guilty plea for voluntary manslaughter. The State introduced that prior case as a “prior similar transaction.” I don’t remember if the State led off with that in their evidence or concluded with it, but I argued to the jury “primacy and recency,” that that was the most important part of the State’s case based on primacy and recency and hence, the strongest part of their case, which was irrelevant (I argued) to what happened on the night in question. At the end of the third trial of the case, the jury acquitted my client on all charges.

  8. July 30, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Great on you dealing the case with such great points. Thanks for sharing the views and this will be quite helpful for further investigations for me as I am dealing with.

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