Some of you have expressed support for SPD Investigator Chris Serino. I respectfully disagree.
I believe he should have been fired for tampering with witnesses during the first night of the investigation by “correcting” witnesses who had identified Trayvon Martin as the person who uttered the terrified shriek. He informed them that the investigation had established that George Zimmerman uttered it. This is absolutely unacceptable.
No competent professional investigator should ever under any circumstances correct a witness’s testimony to support the police theory of the case. This is police misconduct and it is one of the major causes of wrongful convictions of innocent people.
We see it most often when the police have a particular suspect in mind and attempt to build a case against him, despite a lack of evidence, by “correcting” eyewitnesses who identified someone else and suggesting that their investigation has identified a different suspect as the perpetrator of the crime. Eager to assist the police to arrest and convict the “right” suspect, the eyewitnesses will often change their minds and identify the person whom the police have selected as the correct choice. The person is convicted and occasionally sentenced to death, assuming it’s a death penalty case. Years later, however, the defendant is exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing.
In such a case, “correcting” the witness or suggesting whom the witness should select causes multiple harms. The first, of course, is the wrongful conviction of an innocent person and the resulting destruction of their life. The second harm is even worse because it allows the perpetrator to remain free to commit more crimes. Therefore, the practice of “correcting” witness identifications or testimony to support the police theory of a case against a particular suspect has been universally condemned and every police officer in the country has been warned not to do it.
Nevertheless, some police officers with the occasional approval of a prosecutor have persisted in this discredited practice to make sure they get the “right” bad guy. So the wrongful convictions keep on happening and the innocent person languishes in prison or is executed, if it’s a death penalty case. The possibility of a post conviction exoneration by a DNA test is only available in cases where there is biological evidence to test. Most cases do not have biological evidence to test. Wrongfully convicted innocent people in those cases have no remedy except by filing a direct appeal or a habeas corpus petition. Their efforts are rarely successful because they have no way to prove their innocence.
I believe Serino may have saved his job by unexpectedly filing the capias recommending that State’s Attorney, Norm Wolfinger charge George Zimmerman with manslaughter. His request was rejected because Wolfinger had already decided not to charge Zimmermman. Nevertheless, Serino looked good for recommending Zimmerman be charged.
I give Serino a lot of credit for determining which way the wind was blowing and adjusting quickly to the shift in direction.
That talent enabled him to shift from aggressively steering the investigation in Zimmerman’s favor by tampering with witnesses that first night regarding who was screaming to interrogating Zimmerman during the next few days in a manner that allowed him to plausibly tell his supervisors that he was assisting Zimmerman to get his self-defense claim together, but nevertheless leaving him room to claim that he was just leading him on to build trust and get him to make damaging admissions, if the wind changed and people demanded to know why he was being so supportive and agreeable while he was interrogating Zimmerman.
Seems to me that Serino is a master politician in the department capable of convincing everyone he is their loyal friend even as he holds his cards close to his chest and quickly adjusts to align himself with whomever holds the power at any particular time.
I do not trust people like that and one of the primary reasons why my opinion is so harsh is due to the way he questioned Tracy Martin about the terrified shriek.
In the same interview when he showed him a photograph of Trayvon’s dead body and asked him if he could identify it, which is standard procedure, he played a recording of the 911 call with the terrified shriek in the background and asked him if he was 100% certain that was Trayvon screaming.
This was not the right time or the proper way to question him about the shriek. Wanting to help the investigation but obviously shocked and dismayed by the completely unexpected news that his son had been shot to death in Brandy Green’s supposedly safe gated community, Tracy Martin answered “No.”
Instead of waiting for another time after Tracy Martin had adjusted to the shock of Trayvon’s death and was prepared to focus on providing complete information about Trayvon, Serino ambushed him with a question demanding certainty in the form of a specific “yes” or “no” answer. In my opinion, the form and timing of that question strongly suggests that Serino was fishing for a no answer instead of just asking him to listen carefully and indicate whether he thought Trayvon uttered the scream.
Serino must have known that Trayvon very likely uttered the shriek because it sounds like a young person screaming in terror and it ended abruptly with the fatal gunshot. Because Zimmerman had the gun and fired the fatal shot, he had no reason to shriek in terror and stop shrieking at the same instant that he pulled the trigger.
If Tracy Martin had been provided with a reasonable opportunity to collect his wits and think about it, he would have realized the same thing. In fact he has changed his mind and stated that he is now certain that Trayvon uttered that awful shriek.
But the damage has been done and now he can reasonably expect to be confronted at trial with his initial denial and accused of changing his mind to get back at Zimmerman for killing his son. Is it not awful enough to have to reopen wounds and testify about losing your beloved son? Why should he also have to endure being called a liar because, given the nature of the question he was asked, he at first he denied that Trayvon was screaming. He will fear that the jury will not believe him and he will suffer terrible anxiety and guilt that he failed his son when his son needed him. If Zimmerman is acquitted, he will likely believe to the end of his days that Zimmerman would have been convicted, if only he had not failed his son.
This situation never should have happened. Serino did an awful thing to a father in terrible pain by taking advantage of his vulnerability to obtain a “no” answer that would support Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense at a time in the investigation when it should have been apparent to him that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was falling apart. I am shocked by his lack of empathy and willingness to take advantage of a grieving father to get what he wanted.
An investigator is never supposed to be an advocate defending a suspect in a homicide investigation, particularly in the early stages of the investigation before much is known. That is inexcusable and he is fortunate that I will not be cross examining him about how he conducted that investigation.
He certainly made the right decision when he decided to retain counsel and the other police officials including Chief Bill Lee would be well advised to do the same.
They had better not count on Serino refusing to turn on them if push comes to shove and he is accused of a state or federal crime based on how he conducted the investigation.
I do not believe he will go down without taking others down with him and, in fairness to Serino, he was probably ordered to do what he did.
Stay tuned for continuing developments because this fascinating aspect of the case is heating up.