The atmosphere in a criminal courtroom is invariably tense. When the case being heard in that courtroom is one of the most racially charged and highly anticipated murder trials of recent decades, the silent apprehension threatens to explode at any moment.
Put simply, the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch coordinator charged with the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, is the wrong venue for a knock-knock joke.
Don West, Zimmerman's defense attorney, learned this lesson the hard way on Monday when he kicked off his side's opening statement with a joke that produced what has to be the most awkward silence in the history of Florida's 18th Circuit Court.
You can tell that West knew he was cruising for a bruising (no pun intended) when he prefaced his joke by saying, "I'd like to tell you a little joke. I know how that may sound a bit weird, in this context, under these circumstances..."
Judging from his chilly expression as he watched the train wreck unfold from his seat, Zimmerman probably wishes his attorney had stopped right there.
Yet West charged on, imploring the jury to not hold it against his client if they didn't appreciate the humor. As Jelani Cobb put it in The New Yorker, "If you have to preface a joke by asking a jury not to hold it against your client, perhaps it’s a joke that ought not be told."
Apparently, West's joke was a reference to the jury selection process, in which the attorneys sought to weed out potential jurors who were already too familiar with the case. Out of context, however, the joke could easily be mistaken for a slight against the six women who, prior to being selected as jurors, had professed to know little about the circumstances surrounding Trayvon Martin's death.
Despite the fact that he has a law degree from SUNY Buffalo, West apparently forgot the number one rule of trial court: The goal is to get the members of the jury on your side, not to make them feel ignorant and alienated.
The whole "knock-knock" debacle is likely a harbinger of future miscalculations on the part of Zimmerman's defense. The New York Times writes that West "stumbl[ed] at times through the details" of the opening statement, which was rife with rambling digressions and circuitous arguments.
"As the opening statement ran into its third hour," reports Cobb in The New Yorker, "Judge Nelson finally stopped the defense to offer pointers about what belongs in an opening argument and what should be saved for closing."
Of course, West's knock-knock joke wasn't the only shocking statement made on Monday.
John Guy, the prosecutor for the state of Florida, began his opening statement by remarking, deadpan, to the jury, "Good morning. F*cking punks. These a**holes always get away."
Nevertheless, the difference between Don West's surprise stand-up routine and John Guy's startling recitation of Zimmerman's own words as the defendant exited his car in pursuit of Martin could not be more clear. While the prosecution's use of profanity was designed to paint Zimmerman as a loose-cannon vigilante, the exact purpose of the defense's joke about jury-selection remains open to question (doubtless West received a couple of "What-was-that?!"s when he stepped out of the courtroom during recess, prompting his subsequent and equally awkward apology to the jury).
If this episode illustrates anything about the future of the proceedings, it's that George Zimmerman has just as much to fear from his own defense as he does from the prosecution.