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The trial got under way today in Florida in the racially charged prosecution of George Zimmerman, the man who admits killing black teen Trayvon Martin but contends he acted in self-defense.
The all-woman jury listened to the prosecutor unleash a rant of profanity as he tried to give the impression that Zimmerman was out of control and angry when he shot Martin, while defense attorneys opened with a joke about the case’s high profile.
But the defense team enters the court on the heels of a huge weekend victory over prosecutors.
Judge Debra Nelson on Saturday ruled that the audio experts recruited by the state of Florida would not be allowed to testify in court.
In a hearing that began June 6, the state presented evidence from two audio experts, Thomas Owen and Alan Reich. The state had hoped to tell the jury that their scientific analysis of the screams concludes that the screams came from Martin.
Some months earlier, the Orlando Sentinel had contracted with Owen, a court-qualified expert witness and something of an authority on biometric voice analysis.
Owen used software called Easy Voice Biometrics to determine whether it was Zimmerman who cried out for help on that fateful night in February.
“I took all of the screams and put those together, and cut out everything else,” Owen told the Sentinel. The software, however, registered only a 48 percent match, well below the 90 percent threshold needed to prove that the cries were Zimmerman’s.
“As a result of that, you can say with reasonable scientific certainty that it’s not Zimmerman,” said Owen.
Lacking a sample of Martin’s voice, he did not attempt to determine whether the voice was that of the dead teen.
Prosecutors also contracted with Reich, a self-described “forensic acoustic consultant,” to process and analyze two recordings, one Zimmerman’s original call to the dispatcher and witness No 11’s 9-1-1 call.
A month before the trial began, Reich turned in a final report with an impressive display of typos and misspellings – “investigatiaon,” “signlas,” “lazer,” “wishpered,” “howver” – and these were just a few of the many.
The report was also chock-a-block with arcane pseudo-scientific patois that no jury would ever have been able to understand. To wit, “Audio CD and 911 data-logging recording both have 16-bit amplitude resolution, which divides the vertical amplitude scae (sic) of the digital signal into 2^16 =65,526 amplitude gradations.”
Where the untrained ear heard a single individual yelling “help” or “help me” for 40 seconds, Reich heard a “loud, purposeful, mostly ‘turn-taking’ linguistic dialogue.” This dialogue included a “seeminly (sic) religious proclamation” by Zimmerman, “These shall be.”
According to Reich, this occurred simultaneously with Martin’s “loud, high-pitched, distressed, and tremulous ‘I’m begging you.'” To his credit, Reich conceded that these statements are “challenging for the untrained listener to detect.”
At the pre-trial hearing, defense attorney Mark O’Mara argued that trying to compare known speech samples with short bursts of screaming captured on the distant background of a 9-1-1 call while the caller and the dispatcher are speaking over the screams in the foreground was pointless. He presented testimony from four acknowledged experts in the field to make his case.
On June 7, in the middle of this hearing, ABC claimed “exclusive” media possession of a potentially significant recording, specifically about six seconds of Martin’s voice as part of the cache found on his cell phone.
The irrepressible Matt Gutman insisted that this recording would help solve “one of the biggest mysteries of this case so far,” specifically who was doing the screaming on the 9-1-1 recording. He added that Martin’s family and the prosecutors were sure that this new evidence “proves that Martin was crying for help before he was killed.”
Analysts say, however, it appeared more to be a maneuver to muddy the waters.
It was Witness No. 6 who told the police immediately after the shooting, he saw a “black man in a black hoodie on top of either a white guy … or an Hispanic guy in a red sweater on the ground yelling out help.”
Defense witness Hirotake Nakasone found it “disturbing” that anyone would even attempt this analysis given the current state of the technology and the limited quality of the audio.
Accordingly, the court ruled that “the opinion testimony of Mr. Owen and Dr. Reich are hereby excluded from trial.”