The Broadly Misunderstood Case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin
Among the many recent tragedies in the United States indelibly connected to America’s zealously-defended tradition of guns in the hands of private citizens is that of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a Florida gated townhouse community on a rainy Sunday evening in February of 2012.
Unlike some other gun-related travesties of the past year – such as the Newtown, Connecticut massacre of 20 first graders and their teachers in December of 2012; or the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre in July of the same year, which killed and wounded 70 – the Sanford, Florida incident would have likely gone unnoticed among the more than 10,000 annual gun homicides if not for a quirky Florida law passed in 2005, commonly called Stand Your Ground (Crimes statute chapter 776 – Justifiable Use of Force).
The Florida bill, passed overwhelmingly by the state house, unanimously by the state senate and signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush, extended the ancient Castle Doctrine, which allows one to use force to defend hearth and home, not only to workplaces and vehicles but to public places without the duty to retreat. Even more, the law – which became a model for two dozen other states – prevents police and prosecutors from arresting or charging individuals who claim the use of lethal force in self-defense, absent probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.
To invoke this extraordinary exception to the common law principle of having to prove facts and motives to a jury of peers, one need only claim to reasonably believe that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to oneself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony. This exception holds even for one who initiates a confrontation, and then renders one immune not only from arrest, detention and prosecution but from civil suits as well.
One irony of the law is that it has been invoked often in highly questionable circumstances because of the way it hamstrings police and prosecutors. Another unintended consequence was the fallout from the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which turned an otherwise unremarkable incident into a national cause célèbre.
For those who, in spite of 18 months of media coverage and the live-broadcast ongoing trial of George Zimmerman, are unfamiliar with the details, here is a summary:
On a rainy and dark Sunday in February, the black teenage Trayvon Martin, a Miami resident and tall, lanky former football player who was visiting his father’s fiancée’s house in Sanford was about to watch the NBA All-Star game with the fiancée’s 14-year-old son (both adults were out for the evening), but because he “was bored”, walked to the 7-Eleven to get the boy some Skittles candy and a can of Arizona watermelon drink for himself. Because it was raining on the way back, Martin took a shortcut through the adjacent housing complex which had been the route of a number of problem youth, and walked with his hood up, checking out the man in the car who seemed to be watching him and then cutting through the backyards towards his destination. Martin had also taken 40 minutes to complete the 15-minute walk and, for whatever reason, was certainly dawdling.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic 28-year-old Zimmerman was in his vehicle on his way to Target to do his family’s shopping when he noticed yet another young male stranger wandering through his gated community – the Retreat at Twin Lakes – which had been victim to eight burglaries, nine thefts and one other shooting in the prior year, apparently most committed by young, black males (according to a former Block Captain and police reports).
As the Captain of his Neighborhood Watch group, which was created by the Homeowner’s Association in response to several years of crime and other threats, Zimmerman cut short his errand and called the non-emergency police number while keeping a close eye on the stranger, whom he thought was acting oddly, maybe on drugs (there was THC in Martin’s blood during autopsy, indicating recent use), and perhaps casing the homes, as he had witnessed a number of times before. Zimmerman was also carrying a legally-permitted handgun tucked out of sight in a waistband holster – a gun he had been advised to purchase by a Sanford Animal Control Officer because of a dangerous pit bull that was threatening his neighbors (and his wife).
This map follows the re-enactment that police had Zimmerman do with them the next day, showing GZ’s house in the lower left where he began his drive to town, the point where he first noticed TM cutting between houses, the two places where GZ parked to call police, and the walkway where TM disappeared and where GZ walked as he finished his phone call to police, as well as the point at which TM appeared and the red circle where the fight occurred and ended.
On a recorded four minute phone call to the police dispatcher, Zimmerman stated that the individual approached and was staring at him, then ran away behind the homes. The Watchman noted that the youth appeared to be black only in response to a direct question from the dispatcher, as he had done in five previous calls to the police during the preceding 18 months – never mentioning race until asked.
When the dispatcher asked “Which way is he running?”, the sound of car door chimes is audible on the recording as Zimmerman stepped out of his vehicle in order to be in a position to answer the question. He had also been asked twice earlier in the conversation “Just let me know if he does anything”. When the dispatcher assumed from the wind noises that Zimmerman was on foot, and asked “Are you following him?”, Zimmerman responded “Yeah” and the dispatcher said “We don’t need you to do that” but never asked nor ordered Zimmerman to return to his vehicle and wait for the arriving police officers. Zimmerman’s immediate response was “OK”, suggesting continued compliance with the advice and questions of the police dispatcher (he had been trained by the Sanford Police for his role as Watchman and had taken some criminal justice courses in community college).
Approximately one minute after the recorded phone call ended, Zimmerman claims that, as he was returning to his vehicle, Trayvon Martin came suddenly out of the darkness, confronted him, there were words exchanged, which Zimmerman described as “What’s your fucking problem, homie?” or “Do you have a problem, homie”, “I don’t have a problem”, “Now you have a problem”.
At that time, Martin was just finishing a phone conversation with a girl friend in Miami, who later testified that Martin was the first one to speak, but claimed he said “Why are you following me for?”. At that point, according to Zimmerman, the youth sucker-punched him in the face, knocking him to the wet ground, straddling him and pounding his head on the concrete sidewalk.
Zimmerman recounted that “I screamed ‘help me’ probably fifty times as loud as I could” and when a man appeared at his patio door, asked for help. At some point, Zimmerman claims that Martin put hands over his mouth and nose and said “Shut the fuck up”, leaving Zimmerman feeling he was suffocating. Squirming out from under Martin’s hands, Zimmerman claims his jacket and shirt lifted, revealing his weapon (which up until then he had forgotten he had) and that when he felt one of Martin’s hands sliding down his chest and apparently going for the gun, and heard Martin say “You’re going to die tonight, mother fucker”, Zimmerman unholstered his gun and fired once.
A neighbor, Selene Bahadoor, testified that she first head the sounds of running “from left to right” which would have been from the direction Martin had gone toward the place where Zimmerman would have been standing. Neighbor Jennifer Lauer, who lived between the altercation and the head of the concrete walkway which began at a Tee, testified that she heard two loud voices near the Tee in an apparent back and forth, then “scuffling sounds of feet on pavement and grass” moving south (toward the house where Trayvon had been heading), then wrestling and grunting sounds, then a couple of “yelps”, some screaming and then a gun shot as she was on the phone to 911.
Zimmerman claimed he was yelling for help (agonized and desperate yells can be heard in the first 911 call that neighbors made to police two minutes after the end of Zimmerman’s recorded call), and used his gun when he believed that he was in mortal danger. No witnesses heard the actual words exchanged between the two (however, the vulgar street language claimed by Zimmerman would have been consistent with Martin’s reported use of the terms “creepy ass cracker” and “nigger” in describing Zimmerman while he was on the phone a minute earlier with his Miami friend).
Several neighbors peered out their windows or patio doors into the rainy darkness and noticed various parts of the shadowy fight, though nobody witnessed the beginning of it except the two people involved. Some thought they saw the person they later knew to be George Zimmerman on top of another, but that was after the sound of the gunshot was heard, and Zimmerman stated that he rolled on top of Martin after discharging his gun in order to subdue him, thinking that he was still alive and a threat (according to the testimony of two forensic pathologists, Travyon would have been alive and possibly moving for a short time).
One neighbor, Jonathan Good, who stepped outside onto his back patio under the dim glow of an electric light directly adjacent to and within a dozen feet of the melee, was certain that the man with the dark jacket was on top and the “lighter complexioned” man with a red or white shirt was on the bottom (Martin wore a gray hoodie while Zimmerman wore a red and black jacket). He described what he saw as the person on top straddling the one underneath and “throwing punches MMA [mixed martial arts] style”, which he later corrected to downward arm movement since it was too dark to see exactly how the two were connecting.
Good returned to his house to call 911, heard the shot, then looked outside to see “the person that was on top was laying in my grass in a sprawled position and another guy with his hands in the air saying, ‘The gun’s on the ground, I shot this guy in self-defense’.”
By the time he looked outside, another neighbor who had heard the shot, Jonathan Manalo, walked around to the Tee area with a flashlight and saw Zimmerman with blood running out both sides of his nose and down the back of his head. He stated that Zimmerman appeared confused but calm and coherent and presented no apparent threat, and it was to him that Zimmerman confessed his act of self-defense and acknowledged that he had a gun.
Manalo said in trial testimony that, when he asked Zimmerman what happened, the bloodied man told him, “This guy was beating me up, and I had to defend myself and I shot him”. Manalo stated in court that Zimmerman was breathing hard, staggering and looked like “he just got his butt beat”.
Manalo had just enough time at the scene to use his cell phone to take pictures of Zimmerman’s wounds and the lifeless body of Martin before the first police officer, patrolman Tim Smith, arrived, who asked Zimmerman if he had seen who shot the victim. Zimmerman responded that he did and he was still armed, raising his hands in the air to expose his now-holstered gun and allowing the officer to cuff him and remove the weapon. Zimmerman asked Manalo to call his wife and let her know that he had shot someone. Zimmerman was described by both officer Smith and Manalo as compliant and cooperative.
Crime scene photos of Zimmerman’s wounds
Both the fire department paramedics who treated him at the scene and Zimmerman’s own medical provider to whom he went the next day noted injuries consistent with a broken nose, two scalp lacerations, and multiple head contusions. The arresting officer also noted that the back of Zimmerman’s jacket and pants were noticeably wetter than the front and that grass was clinging to the back of his jacket, as if he had been lying on the ground on his back.
These details were gathered in seven hours of police examination and interviews, dozens of subsequent interviews, a next-day re-enactment with Zimmerman of the incident, and the usual evidentiary collection and forensic analysis. Police photographs of Zimmerman’s clothing and hands revealed no knuckle cuts or bruising and no grass stains on his knees. The autopsy of Martin revealed two knuckle abrasions in addition to the bullet wound to the chest, and Martin’s pants showed grass stains on the knees.
The foregoing is a composite picture of the event, as detailed in multiple statements, police reports, and trial testimony from the prosecution witnesses (at this point in the trial, the defense has not yet begun its case, but most of the prosecution witnesses have either corroborated Zimmerman’s account or raised questions about the prosecution’s case or the reliability of their witnesses).
The “prime witness” for the prosecution, Rachel ‘Dee Dee’ Jeantel – the Miami girl who was on the phone with Martin just before he died, was an openly hostile witness, almost illiterate, who had tried her best to avoid participation in the case – did insist that she heard Trayvon say “get off, get off” just before the phone went dead, but also admitted to lying under oath on two occasions, to changing her testimony in repeated interviews, and that she really couldn’t say for sure if the apparent punch she says she heard was coming from or to Martin. When asked in cross-examination if the reason she finally agreed to testify was to “do what you could do to make sure George Zimmerman got arrested”, Jeantel answered “Yes”.
Jeantel never went to the police, even after she learned that Trayvon had been killed, and made her first statement to Martin’s parents and Martin’s attorney at their request and her own mother’s insistence.
The story and evidence I’ve presented seems to paint a rather clear case of a tragic encounter which resulted in the death of one by an act of self-defense on the part of the other – one life snuffed out too soon and another’s forever stained by the intensity of public focus and a trial which could result in life behind bars.
But this story is not the one that has been presented in most of the media coverage, blogs and opinion pieces that have been published in print or on-line during the past year and a half.
Instead, once word got out that Zimmerman was released from custody (lead investigator Chris Serino recommended manslaughter charges under pressure from black colleagues, but Seminole County State’s Attorney Norm Wolfinger rejected the request citing a lack of solid evidence), the anti-racist and liberal/progressive communities fired up their constituencies and their rhetoric to paint this incident as a case of racial profiling, a racially-charged murder and an example of flagrant police and prosecutorial misconduct with racial overtones.
Local, regional and national demonstrations were held, with both the New Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan taking to the streets to take sides. President Obama felt obliged to comment on the event, suggesting that if he had a son he would look a lot like Trayvon, the Justice Department began a civil rights investigation, and Florida Governor Rick Scott felt enough political pressure to appoint a special prosecutor who sidestepped a grand jury which might not have returned an indictment, and instead filed 2nd degree murder charges against Zimmerman, leading to the trial which began June 24th [and concluded on July 12 with a not-guilty verdict the next day].
Public opinion is a fickle thing that is easily misinformed and swayed by the loudest and most vociferous voices, by one’s own personal bias, as well as by a constant barrage of media accounts which ranged from responsible to sensationalistic to outright fraud, such as the police dispatch call that was edited by an MSNBC/Today Show producer to make Zimmerman appear to be targeting a youth because of his race.
In fact, much of the public outrage was focused on Zimmerman’s alleged racism and apparent attempt at vigilante justice.
The few responsible investigative articles on the backstory of this incident, while revealing a mutual restraining order taken out by both Zimmerman and his former girlfriend (who later told the FBI that George was “the last person” she would expect to be involved in a shooting incident, explaining that he “was not the type of person to place himself in a physical confrontation”), as well as an arrest for pushing an undercover state ATF agent who was harassing a friend in a bar (with felony charges reduced to misdemeanor and then expunged in a diversion program) – both events in 2005 – showed a life of befriending and defending the underdog, including blacks.
Zimmerman took a black girl to his senior prom, publicly defended a homeless black man who was beaten by the son of a police officer, became a regular playmate of an autistic child, had a black business partner and was mentoring two black teens at the time of this incident. He also hoped to become a judge (his father had been a judge-magistrate in Virginia) and was described by Wendy Dorival, the volunteer program coordinator for the Sanford Police Department, as “a little meek” and someone who wanted to “make changes in his community to make it better”. Dorival said she was impressed with Zimmerman’s professionalism and dedication to his community and, because of Zimmerman’s “demeanor” and “his high interest in being part of a Sanford community”, asked him to join another program, Citizens on Patrol, which trained residents to patrol their neighborhoods in uniform, but he declined.
This background suggests a person who was anything but racist (his great grandfather was black), and hardly a “wannabe cop” (as many have asserted) if he declined a more active role with the police department.
Neighbor Jennifer Lauer, an articulate professional woman with a college degree and a member of the Retreat at Twin Lakes Homeowner’s Association Board, testified that, in her few interactions with Zimmerman, he always seemed to act responsibly and out of concern for the community, and did not seem to be a “hothead” or vigilante wannabe.
While there was some indication of past issues around race with the Sanford Police Department (including the beating of the homeless black man which was not initially investigated), the Mayor stood by his police chief until forced under pressure to dismiss him, and there is no evidence that the police department did anything surrounding this incident that was not appropriate or required by the Stand Your Ground exemption.
By the time this nationally-focused case came to trial, Zimmerman’s lawyers decided against a Stand Your Ground hearing, as that issue was already far too volatile. Instead, they opted for a traditional self-defense claim, which appears to be supported by most of the evidence and testimony. A mostly white and all-female jury of six, I suspect, will have a hard time finding Zimmerman guilty of murder beyond a reasonable doubt, particularly 2nd degree which requires proof of hatred, ill will or a wanton disregard for human life. The final outcome of the trial remains to be seen [On the late evening of July 13, after just 16 hours of deliberation, the jury returned a not guilty finding on both 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and Zimmerman was released.]
But the reaction to this event has indicted the American public, mainstream media and blogosphere with a degree of wanton indifference to facts, evidence and reason. Almost all the publicly-expressed opinions on the incident show profound evidence of bias and premature if not thoroughly unwarranted conclusions, often to serve a pre-existing agenda to which this incident was tortuously forced to fit.
Even if acquitted and exonerated, George Zimmerman faces a life sentence of being a poster child and punching bag for those whose interest in social change over-rides any interest in justice for one man forced to do something he will regret for as long as he lives. [In fact, once released, Zimmerman had to go back into hiding wearing a bullet-proof vest because of the continuing death threats and his parents are afraid to go to their home.]
The real villains in this tragedy are the Florida legislature (and the ALEC and NRA lobbyists) who pushed through the Stand Your Ground law; the concealed carry laws which give permission to be armed in public; the public figures, activists and politicians who inflated the incident to serve their own agendas; the professional and amateur media which blew this out of proportion and distorted the facts and contorted their logic; and the hordes who uncritically fell in line behind one side or the other.
And the core of the tragedy, a truth which most black leaders are afraid to confront, is that the prevalence of black youth criminality in the US is responsible for the nearly universal profile of young, black males as dangerous. In a rare moment of candor, the Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., at a meeting of Operation PUSH in Chicago in 1993, said “There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery. Then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
The liberal, black federal Clinton-appointed judge Theodore A. McKee, U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, also acknowledged:
“If I’m walking down a street in Center City Philadelphia at two in the morning and I hear some footsteps behind me and I turn around and there are a couple of young white dudes behind me, I am probably not going to get very uptight. I’m probably not going to have the same reaction if I turn around and there is the proverbial Black urban youth behind me. Now if I am going to have this reaction – and I’m a Black male who has studied marshal arts for twenty some odd years and can defend myself – I can’t help but think that the average white judge in the situation will have a reaction that is ten times more intense.” (quoted in Linn Washington, Black Judges on Justice: Perspectives from the Bench, 1994)
If this is the experience of powerful black leaders, then one can hardly blame a mild-mannered Hispanic named George Zimmerman for making some reasonable assumptions in a neighborhood plagued with black youth crime.
Rather than continue the push for a federal civil rights probe of Zimmerman and a public media lynching, a more constructive course of action would be to look to the Million Man Pledge that Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan asked Black men to take on October 16, 1995, during the Million Man March on Washington, D.C.:
“I pledge that from this day forward I will strive to love my brother as I love myself. I, from this day forward, will strive to improve myself spiritually, morally, mentally, socially, politically and economically for the benefit of myself, my family and my people. I pledge that I will strive to build businesses, build houses, build hospitals, build factories and enter into international trade for the good of myself, my family and my people.
I pledge that from this day forward I will never raise my hand with a knife or a gun to beat, cut, or shoot any member of my family or any human being except in self-defense….”
“The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the mass away from the contamination and death of the worst.” – W.E.B. DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP in 1909
President Obama candidly and eloquently addressed the nation about race, gun violence and black youth on 7/19/2013, accepting the course of justice in the Zimmerman trial, and asking Americans to do some soul searching rather than grand symbolic gestures.
“The judge conducted the trial in a professional manner. The prosecution and the defense made their arguments. The jurors were properly instructed that in a case such as this, reasonable doubt was relevant, and they rendered a verdict. And once the jury’s spoken, that’s how our system works.”
“I think it’s going to be important for all of us to do some soul-searching… those of us in authority should be doing everything we can to encourage the better angels of our nature as opposed to using these episodes to heighten divisions.”
And Obama invited the black community to acknowledge the realities of their culture and take responsibility for creating a positive atmosphere and constructive role models for troubled youth exposed to too much self-reinforcing negativity.
“Now, this isn’t to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It’s not to make excuses for that fact, although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.”
“I think the African-American community is also not naive in understanding that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was probably more likely to be shot by a peer than he was by somebody else.”
“Number three – and this is a long-term project: We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? And this is something that Michelle and I talk a lot about. There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?”
Though many in the black, civil rights and “progressive” communities (including the Martin family and their legal team), after first insisting that all they wanted was an arrest and trial of the accused, immediately proceeded to reject the outcome of the three-week trial that was forced by public and political pressure on a legal system which understood that there never was a case against Zimmerman.
The special prosecutor, Angela Corey, sidestepped a grand jury (likely because she feared she had insufficient evidence to even warrant a trial) and overcharged Zimmerman with second degree murder (rather than simple manslaughter), which requires proof of hatred, ill will or a wanton disregard for human life.
Yet the prosecutors and the defense team agreed with judge Debra Nelson that criminal profiling, but not racial profiling, would be admissible in the trial. The FBI, meanwhile, was conducting its own investigation into race-based hate crime, and found no evidence of any racial or ethnic prejudice on Zimmerman’s part.
Given the overwhelming evidence that Trayvon Martin was the aggressor and initiator of the confrontation and that George Zimmerman acted in self-defense, the six-woman jury had no choice but to acquit on even the lesser included charged of manslaughter, in spite of half of them initially having the “gut feeling” that what Zimmerman did was somehow not right. That half of the jury was convinced by the other half that such subjective impressions could not be used as the basis for a verdict, and that it was the responsibility of jurors to weigh only the evidence and the credibility of witnesses and then render a decision based on the constraints of the relevant law.
Following is a summary of the principle trial testimony:
Wendy Dorival, the volunteer program coordinator for the Sanford Police Department, who trained George Zimmerman and twelve others for Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch, testified in court that she encourages neighbors to know who doesn’t belong and to call police if anything or anyone appears in any way suspicious or out of place and that a person walking in the rain between houses without a particular purpose – a description of Trayvon the night of the shooting – would be considered suspicious. Dorival denied that her training included a prohibition against following at a distance to gather information to provide to the police. And Dorival said she doesn’t discuss whether residents should carry firearms while participating in a Neighborhood Watch program, only that they must follow the law, and that they have the right to protect themselves if attacked.
Sean Noffke, the Sanford police dispatcher who was on the phone with Zimmerman, testified in court that Zimmerman could have reasonably understood his question “Which way is he running?” as a request to get out of his vehicle and take a look. He also testified that he is NOT a police officer and is forbidden by policy from saying anything that even sounds like an order. But, when he did say to Zimmerman “we don’t need you to do that”, Zimmerman immediately responded “OK”, indicating continued compliance with the dispatcher’s requests.
The highly skeptical lead investigator, Chris Serino, testified in court that Zimmerman’s accounts were consistent with all the physical evidence and the witness statements and that he seemed to be telling the truth (Zimmerman also passed a lie detector test and said “thank God” when told that there may be video evidence of the struggle).
The state’s “star witness”, Rachel Jeantel (who was consistently hostile to the defense) admitted to lying about her age and her reasons for avoiding Martin’s funeral. She also admitted that she didn’t mention Martin’s use of the term “creepy ass cracker” until a year after the shooting and that her recounting of the verbal exchange changed several times. She acknowledged that the term “cracker” means “pervert”. In court, she testified that she heard Martin say “Why are you following me?” followed by “What are you doing around here?” But in her original account, she claimed that Zimmerman said, “What are you talking about?” (which suggests surprise rather than confrontation). Jeantel testified that she heard a bump and “wet grass sound”, but then admitted that she really can’t say who hit whom. When asked “Was your purpose [for finally coming forward] to make sure George Zimmerman got arrested?”, Jeantel answered “Yes”.
Witness Selene Bahadoor testified that the first thing she heard was “the sound of running from left to right” (from south to north), which would be from where Trayvon had gone (Brandy Green’s townhouse) to the Tee where Zimmerman was returning to his vehicle.
Jeannee Manalo testified that she heard noises that seemed to move from the top of the Tee slightly further south.
Jayne Surdyka testified that she heard a “loud, dominant, angry, agitated” voice about five to ten minutes before she heard the argument, during which the “loud” voice initiated, and a “meek” voice replied.
Jenna Lauer (the fist 911 caller) testified that the verbal altercation began at the Tee (where Zimmerman’s keys were found, suggesting that he dropped them when he was punched in the face), and then she heard scuffling and the sound of shoes on pavement and grass, followed by “grunting” and “wrestling” or rolling in the grass that was getting closer, with the grunting gradually turned into “yelping”, and that only one voice was yelling for help, which began before her 911 call (the call recording has 45 seconds of yelling for help).
John Good testified that when he stepped out his door under the dim patio light he saw a person wearing “dark or black” straddling a person in red with lighter skin face up on the ground and “raining down blows MMA-style” while the one on the bottom yelled for help, and that the attacker refused to stop after Good said “cut it out” and that he would call the police. He said he could not hear any pounding or hitting, but did see “downward arm motion, multiple times” that “looked like punches”. He identified the person on top as Martin and the person on the bottom as Zimmerman.
The first neighbor to contact Zimmerman immediately after the gunshot, Jonathan Manalo, testified that Zimmerman was breathing hard, staggering and looked like “he just got his butt beat”. Manalo also took the cell phone picture of Zimmerman’s bleeding scalp.
State witness and Trayvon phone buddy Rachel Jeantel, testified that Trayvon had made it to “the back of his daddy fiancée house” and that Trayvon initiated the verbal confrontation. She later told Piers Morgan that Trayvon thought that Zimmerman was a homo and gave him a good “whoop-ass”.
Nationally-recognized gunshot wound expert Dr. Vincent Di Maio, board certified in anatomical, clinical and forensic pathology, testified that Zimmerman’s six or more head injuries were consistent with punches on the face and blunt trauma with concrete on the back and sides (and not consistent with any other scenario), and sufficient to cause concussion or “stunning”. He also testified that “You can get severe trauma to the head without external injuries.”
The paramedic who treated Zimmerman at the scene and his private healthcare provider who treated him the next day agreed with Dr. Di Maio’s assessment that Zimmerman’s nose was broken and displaced and that he would have been bleeding into his throat while lying on his back, which can cause a feeling of suffocation.
While Zimmerman had multiple wounds, there was not a mark on Trayvon’s body other than the fatal bullet wound and the scraped knuckles from punching Zimmerman, indicating that Zimmerman never struck Trayvon and that all his efforts were defensive. Likewise, Zimmerman had no offensive wounds indicating that he struck anybody, but his back was wet and covered with grass while Trayvon’s pant knees were grass-stained.
So all the testimony and forensic evidence as well as nearly all the witness statements supported Zimmerman’s account and offer more than sufficient evidence that Zimmerman would have reasonably been in fear for his life in the midst of a brutal assault initiated by Trayvon Martin and sustained even after neighbor John Good warned him to stop so loudly that neighbors behind closed windows heard it. Zimmerman either was telling the truth about forgetting he was armed or exercised the most incredible restraint in not using his gun until after a full minute of continual assault.
Additionally, Florida Department of Law Enforcement DNA analyst Anthony Gorgone found mixed DNA on Zimmerman’s holster, with the major contribution coming from Zimemrman, but could neither confirm nor rule out Martin’s as part of the mix. This at least does not refute Zimmerman’s claim that Martin reached for his gun and forced him to use it in self-defense.
The Evolution of Media and Blogosphere Coverage of the Shooting & Trial
A February 2014 paper out of MIT’s Center for Civic Media describes how it used Media Cloud and other tools to map how the story of Trayvon Martin’s death was told – and evolved. “Trayvon Martin’: Mapping a Media Controversy On- and Offline” tracks how the event was covered immediately after Martin’s death, and over the following days and weeks as the story ascended from local broadcast news to national newspapers and the web.
The researchers present their findings by breaking the Trayvon Martin story into five acts.
The first spans February 26 to March 6, during which time the story did not make it beyond Florida media. Local TV news covered it, followed in subsequent days by stories in the Orlando Sentinel and The Miami Herald. “The news story, initially framed as a fight between two people in an area known for occasional violence, stood little chance of attracting significant media attention.”
The second act is when Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney Martin’s family retained, and the publicist Crump hired, Ryan Julison entered the picture. It was through Julison’s efforts that national news outlets, including Reuters and CBS, got wind of the case. From there, the paper argues, digital platforms like The Huffington Post and the Black Youth Project began to amplify the story, but with the addition of significant misinformation (emphasis added).
It’s also in this stage that the circulation of the Change.org petition began to grow exponentially. The paper also notes that celebrities sharing the petition on Twitter caused a 900% spike in traffic between March 12 and 15.
The third act, from March 16 to 22, saw the release of the police audio file documenting the events prior to the confrontation. That audio provided what the authors call an “actuality” for TV and radio broadcasters to build a story around, which is why mainstream media is the central focus of this phase. At the same time, protests started popping up in Florida, New York City, and London, providing “actualities” for newspapers, leading to the first national front-page story about Martin on March 22.
Then came the peak in Martin coverage in Act IV, from March 23 to April 10, during which President Obama weighed in with his comment on racial profiling. After that, “We see this kind of open season for political actors trying to use the attention dedicated to this story for political gain.”
Then, conservative bloggers sought to push back by searching for evidence of “a troubled youth” in Martin’s social media profiles. This pursuit eventually led to The Miami Herald publishing a story describing an incident in which Martin was suspended for carrying a bag of marijuana. Though conservative bloggers could not prove Martin was a drug dealer, they were successful in getting the mainstream media to address that claim. This led liberal, digital media such as ThinkProgress and Gothamist to complain about the tactic “at the level of meta-narrative, covering the coverage of the claim.”
Finally, in Act V, the authors argue that pressure from across the media ecosystems led authorities in Florida to take Zimmerman into custody. This once again provided the news hook necessary to spark a mainstream news cycle, with front-page coverage peaking the day after his arrest. Simultaneously, Google searches for “George Zimmerman” reached a high, as those who had managed to ignore the story previously sought context.
“We realized that the broadcast media were key to driving attention to this story, which is counter to the popular narrative…” But at the same time, they learned broadcast and the rest of the mainstream media are highly susceptible to the agenda-setting of digital and alternative media. They also believe that digital activists are getting better at manipulating the media, promoting their own agendas and challenging official narratives. Newspapers, in turn, are vulnerable to this type of direction because of their reliance on newsy “actualities” like protests or other events.
“In our study, social media’s role in agenda-setting is more complicated. Attention to the Martin killing comes initially from professional news outlets. However, online communities demonstrate agenda-setting power both by organizing protests like the Million Hoodie Marches and by influencing online dialog, suggesting alternative interpretations of events.”
The Five Acts:
1) February 26 to March 6 – the story did not make it beyond Florida media.
2) March 7 to March 16 – attorney Ben Crump and publicist Ryan Julison pushed the story to national news outlets, including Reuters and CBS, after which digital platforms like The Huffington Post and the Black Youth Project began to amplify the story, but with the addition of significant misinformation. It’s also in this stage that the circulation of the Change.org petition began to grow exponentially.
3) March 16 to 22 – Crump secures release of the SPD dispatch audio file, Color of Change pushes the story, and mainstream media attention spikes.
4) March 23 to April 10 – President Obama weighed in and “We see this kind of open season for political actors trying to use the attention dedicated to this story for political gain.” Then, conservative bloggers sought to push back by searching for evidence of “a troubled youth” in Martin’s social media profiles, and this eventually led to The Miami Herald publishing “Multiple suspensions paint complicated portrait of Trayvon Martin”. This led liberal digital media to complain about the tactic “at the level of meta-narrative, covering the coverage of the claim.”
5) April 11 onward – pressure from across media ecosystems led authorities in Florida to take Zimmerman into custody, which provided the news hook necessary to spark a mainstream news cycle, with front-page coverage peaking the day after his arrest. Simultaneously, Google searches for “George Zimmerman” reached a high, as those who had managed to ignore the story previously sought context.
Key Media Events:
3/7/2012 – Reuters writes about the case; more national coverage soon follows.
3/8/2012 – Martin’s father holds press conference criticizing SPD investigation and Change.org petition begins.
3/9/2012 – Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Martin family, announces he is filing a lawsuit to get the public records released.
3/13/2012 – SPD announces case turned over to State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, NAACP sends letter to U.S. Department of Justice.
3/20/2012 – U.S. Department of Justice announces investigation.
3/22/2012 – Obama said during a press conference in response to a question, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” But he prefaced his remarks by saying he had “to be careful about my statements to make sure that we’re not impairing any investigation that’s taking place right now.”
7/19/2013 More thorough comments in an unannounced visit to the White House press briefing room.
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes