Zimmerman-Martin trial: Audio experts testify in pre-trial hearings

A recap of the first few days of hearings in the case against George Zimmerman, charged with the murder of Trayvon Martin. Photo: S.Ruth/AP

WASHINGTON, June 8, 2013 — The second degree homicide trial of George Zimmerman is scheduled to start on Monday June 10 with jury selection after pre-trial motions conclude this weekend.

It has been a long time since a trial has drawn such sharp public divisions. In the Casey Anthony case, the majority of the viewing public believed she was guilty even if the jury did not, and the audience was waiting more for the sentencing Jodi Arias would receive rather than a decision on guilt or innocence. But those watching the Zimmerman/ Trayvon Martin case are not so united; in fact they are not united at all.

The supporters of the prosecution see Trayvon Martin as a typical teenage boy. Flawed yet full of promise with dreams of flying planes.

To the defenders of George Zimmerman, Martin was a gun loving fighter with a drug habit. They believe he was part of the hip hop, urban “gangsta” culture.

Thursday June 6 was the start of the Frye hearings related to the Zimmerman trial. A Frye standard is held to determine the admissibility of scientific evidence. The Frye hearings so far in the Zimmerman trial have been focused on the 911 audio recording.

Judge Debra Nelson already ruled in favor of the prosecution on Tuesday, May 28. After a two-hour hearing, Nelson ruled the defense attorney will not be able to mention Martin’s past marijuana use, his suspension from school nor his participation in fights in his opening statements. The defense won another victory during this earlier hearing when the judge refused to sequester the jury as the prosecution had requested.

Not everything went against Zimmerman’s side at the prior hearing, however. The judge also denied a gag order that the defense had requested.

On Thursday, the Frye hearings began with the testimony of Dr. Hirotaka Nakasone, an audio analyst with the FBI who had listened to the entire 911 tape and was asked about the blood curdling screams heard on the recording. He testified that the audio quality of the tape was too poor to determine who was actually screaming.

Zimmerman’s attorneys called Dr. Nakasone to the stand to discredit the three state experts who reached the conclusion that it was Trayvon Martin screaming on the tape.

On Friday, the hearing started late due to a meeting between the attorneys and the judge. When they finally entered the courtroom 15 minutes later, there was no indication as to what the meeting was about.

The first witness called for the day was Tom Owen, one of the audio experts for the State. Owen is based in New Jersey and is sworn in via video conference.

Owen testified that he has 50 years of experience in the audio field and that “the more you do, the better you get at it.”

Owen explained that he compared the recorded scream with that of a test scream obtained from George Zimmerman. He further explained he had no scream of Trayvon Martin to use as a comparison so he tried to either match or rule out Zimmerman from the test. Owen added that it is easier to eliminate someone than it is to identify the speaker.

According to Owen, the scream on the 911 tape did not match Zimmerman’s scream.

Owen stated that he also listened to the 911 call Zimmerman made before he confronted Martin to see if George Zimmerman had made a racial slur. He determined Zmmerman had not.

The defense tried to discredit Owen as an expert, showing that some of the 50 years’ experience that he claims was recording weddings and that he has a degree in history with no advanced degree.

The witness responded by pointing out that he started working when he was 15, yes by recording weddings, and that he makes no claims on understanding the mathematics behind the software he uses but that he knows how to use it well.

At this point Owen emailed his college transcript to all the attorneys.

The judge agreed with an objection from the state that this hearing should not be about the results of the analysis but whether the way the analysis was performed was acceptable and done correctly.

Owen says he heard eight cries for help in seven seconds and that in order to identify the speaker and the screamer, he lengthened the voice and tried to match the pitches. Owen said he believes the voice belongs to Trayvon Martin. Owen stated that he cannot be positive about the identity of the voice because he would need a larger word sample to be sure, but he believes it is probable.

Dr. Alan Reich was next to be called by the prosecutor. Dr. Reich is a state speech expert.

Reich explained that the software he used to analyze the tape was not new or novel and should not come into question. He went on to explain that the “high pitched” screams were not Zimmerman’s and did not compare with his tone or pitch but did match Martin’s.

Reich claimed to have worked 700 hours on this case. He believes the phrases “I’m begging you,” “get off me” and “stop” as well as the scream were all uttered by Martin.

The defense asked if he had considered that Zimmerman’s voice would have sounded different if he had been punched in the face, but Reich said he heard “no nasal quality in the scream.”

Saturday’s hearing ended without a decision on whether or not the jurors will hear testimony about the screaming, despite testimony from two more expert witnesses. A third witness was unavailable, and will testify next week.

Experts Peter French and George Doddington both expressed skepticism about the ability to identify the screamer on the audio tape.

French testified that the voices of a screaming person and a speaking person are completely different and that it is not appropriate to compare one to the other.

Doddington said voice identification is not an acurate science. He noted, “Speech is not like iris scans. Speech is not like DNA.”

The judge is expected to rule on audio testimony after the final expert testifies next week.

Zimmerman will be back in court on Monday morning for jury selection.

The jury will consist of six people on the actual jury and four alternates.


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Susan L Ruth

Susan L. Ruth is a long-time Washington, DC resident with extensive ties throughout the community.  She is a genealogical researcher and writer, and is an active volunteer in the Northern Virginia competitive swimming community.  Susan previously worked providing life-skills to head injured adults. 

Susan and her husband Kerry currently live in Northern Virginia with their three sons, Ryley, Casey and Jack and their American Bulldog, Leila.


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