Last month's not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman on second degree murder and manslaughter charges for the killing of the black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, in Sanford, Florida, on February 26 last year, has provoked a flurry of discussion in the US mainstream media on the issues of racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws (which remove the duty to retreat in self-defence cases.) President Barack Obama even weighed in again on the case stating that Martin "could have been me 35 years ago" while calling for the problem of racial profiling of black Americans in the US to be recognised and addressed and Stand Your Ground Laws re-examined.
Somewhat awkwardly, however, neither were ultimately key issues in the case. Zimmerman's defence rested on a pure self-defence claim (he was not in a position to retreat when he shot Martin), while the prosecution, much as they would have liked to, could produce no evidence of racial profiling or bias on Zimmerman's part.
The question this raises is why the US political and media elites are so determined to link the Zimmerman acquittal to these racially-infused issues, though they turned out to be effectively irrelevant to the case? One possible answer is, perhaps, that it is a way of avoiding through misdirection having to face up to certain hard questions the trial raised about their own conduct.
Following the verdict Zimmerman's two lawyers - Don West and Mark O'Mara - held a press conference. West commented that the verdict prevented the tragedy of Trayvon Martin's death from becoming a travesty of justice. O'Mara was asked by a reporter whether his client had ever cried or shown emotion. He noted in reply that Zimmerman had been turned into the "most hated man in America" (as some had called him) for having defended his own life. He had also been a great believer in a justice system that he had always wanted to be part of, either as a cop or a prosecutor. O'Mara continued:
"Two systems went against George Zimmerman that he can't understand: You guys, the media. He was like a patient in an operating table where mad-scientists were committing experiments on him and he had no anaesthesia. He didn't know why he was turned into this monster but quite honestly, you guys had a lot to do with it. You just did because you took a story that was fed to you, and you ran with it, and you ran right over him. And that was horrid to him.
Then he comes into a system that he trusts. Let's not forget, six voluntary statements, voluntary surrender, and he believes in the system that he really wanted to be part of... right? And then he gets prosecutors that charge him with a crime they could never ever prove. They didn't lose evidence along the way... right? So, I don't think anyone would argue with me in this room that they had evidence of second degree murder. This, in your heart kind of stuff [prosecutors asked the jury to ‘look into their hearts' rather than at the evidence when deciding the verdict during closing arguments], is not what we're supposed to do and not what they are supposed to do. So those two systems failed him."
This challenge, though reported on, has provoked very little serious introspection by the mainstream media in the US. This is a pity, for if O'Mara is right about how those two systems failed Zimmerman, they will sooner or later fail others - with possibly more deadly results.
This article then will trace the evolution of the controversy over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the way information was presented (or "fed") to the press, and measure it against what we now know. It will then go on to discuss what this case says about the "two systems" that sought to have George Zimmerman arrested, tried and sent to jail for life.
On the evening of February 26 George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in the Retreat at Twin Lakes townhouse development in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman surrendered to police at the scene, was handcuffed, disarmed, and taken into custody. He waived his Miranda rights and gave both a verbal and written statement of what had happened, explaining that he had shot Martin in self-defence. He was released that night and the following afternoon (February 27) he walked the investigators through the scene of the incident - and explained the events that had led up to the shooting, this time placing them in their physical context. That day he also voluntarily underwent a Voice Stress Test (a kind of lie detector test) which he passed.
Initially the police had been unable to identify Trayvon Martin. But on the morning of February 27 Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, phoned in to report his son missing. The investigating officer Chris Serino drove out to meet him at his girlfriend Brandy Green's home at the Retreat - where Trayvon Martin had been staying - and Tracy Martin identified the dead teenager as his son from a crime scene photograph.
At 10:30am the following day (February 28) Serino briefed Tracy Martin on the case and explained Zimmerman's account of what had happened, why no arrest had yet been made (given the available evidence), and that investigations were continuing. He also played a recording of various 911 recordings. In one of these a voice can be heard desperately screaming for help. Serino asked Tracy Martin whether that was his son's voice. Martin responded "no". Serino did not, however, play the recording of Zimmerman's call to the police non-emergency number (NEN) before the shooting though Martin was informed of its existence.
Martin, through a contact, proceeded to reach out to Benjamin Crump - a Tallahassee lawyer, who had secured a settlement for $7.2 million in damages from the state of Florida and Bay County for the family of a black teenager who had died in a boot-camp style detention centre in 2006. Crump brought in another lawyer, Natalie Jackson, whose mother lived in Sanford and she, in turn, engaged Ryan Julison a publicist with whom she had worked in the past.
Trayvon Martin's body was released to the family that week, and his funeral was held on March 3. Up until this point there had been a few limited reports (see here and here) in the local news media - but most did not name either Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman.
It is important to note what Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, his ex-wife and the mother of Trayvon, knew at this time. Tracy Martin had been fully briefed about George Zimmerman's account of what had happened and the evidence, such as it was, that seemed to support it. Martin and Fulton were also obviously familiar with their son and his background, particularly his recent record at school.
The police had already collected substantial evidence as well as numerous statements from Zimmerman. But the investigation was ongoing and they were keeping the information they had collected confidential. George Zimmerman and his family meanwhile were not talking to reporters. There was a critical two week gap in which the Martin family and their legal and public relations team were able to aggressively push their account of what had happened, with very weak contestation from the police and none from Zimmerman himself. In this period the Martin team was able to frame the story in the public imagination, and instigate the national outcry which ultimately drove the arrest and prosecution.
On March 7 Reuters ran an article on the shooting based almost entirely on information provided to it by Crump and Julison. In the article Crump describes Trayvon Martin as a "good kid" in junior high who wanted to be a pilot, and Zimmerman (whom he named) as the white "Neighbourhood Watch loose cannon" who shot and killed him. Crump said that Trayvon lived in Miami with his mother, but was visiting his father and stepmother, Brandy Green. He had taken a break from watching the NBA All Stars game to go to a local convenience store to buy snacks, including skittles for Green's son Chad. On his return to the Retreat Zimmerman had spotted him and phoned "911" (actually the NEN) to report a suspicious person in the neighbourhood.
Crump said Zimmerman had not waited for the police to arrive and instead got out of his car and confronted Martin. By the time the police got to the scene Martin was dead of a single gunshot to the chest. "What do the police find in his pocket? Skittles," Crump told Reuters. "A can of Arizona ice tea in his jacket pocket and Skittles in his front pocket for his brother Chad."
Crump said the family was demanding the release of Zimmerman's call to police. "If he never gets out of his car, there is no reason for self-defense. Trayvon only has skittles. He has the gun." Crump added that given that Trayvon Martin was black and Zimmerman was white, race was "the 600 pound elephant in the room. Why is this kid suspicious in the first place? I think a stereotype must have been placed on the kid."
The following morning CBS This Morning aired a report on the case. Although it was fairly soberly reported it did contain an animated graphic showing the Zimmerman figure shooting the Martin figure from several feet away. The programme quoted Tracy Martin as saying of Trayvon "He was up here to relax. He wasn't up here to return home in a body bag. That's the part that tears me up." Tracy Martin questioned Zimmerman's self-defence claim stating: "Why would he attack this guy? He don't know this guy. What was he going to do -- attack him with a pack of skittles?"
On February 26, our son Trayvon Martin was shot and killed as he walked to a family member's home from a convenience store where he had just bought some candy. He was only 17 years-old.
Trayvon's killer, George Zimmerman, admitted to police that he shot Trayvon in the chest. Zimmerman, the community's self appointed "neighborhood watch leader," called the police to report a suspicious person when he saw Travyon, a young black man, walking from the store. But Zimmerman still hasn't been charged for murdering our son.
Trayvon was our hero. At the age 9, Trayvon pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17 he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that's all gone.
When Zimmerman reported Trayvon to the police, they told him not to confront him. But he did anyway. All we know about what happened next is that our 17 year-old son, who was completely unarmed, was shot and killed.
It's been nearly two weeks and the Sanford Police have refused to arrest George Zimmerman. In their public statements, they even go so far as to stand up for the killer - saying he's "a college grad" who took a class in criminal justice.
Please join us in calling on Norman Wolfinger, Florida's 18th District State's Attorney, to investigate my son's murder and prosecute George Zimmerman for the shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin.
On Friday March 9 Crump filed paperwork demanding the release of all 911 and NEN calls. The same day the Martin family team held a protest outside of the Sanford Police Department along with some two dozen protestors. It was at this point that WFTV uncovered a mug shot of a heavy-set, unshaven and scowling George Zimmerman following his arrest for "Battery on a Law Enforcement Officer" and "resisting arrest with violence", charges it said were later dismissed. This photo of George Zimmerman was, for the next few weeks, the only one available and media reports would consistently juxtapose it against the Hollister picture of Trayvon Martin. See picture below.
On being presented with this new information a tearful Sybrina Fulton told WFTV that "as a mother my heart is broken." The WFTV report claimed that Zimmerman had phoned police to "report a suspicious black man in the neighbourhood and even though dispatchers reportedly told him not to confront the teenager he did. They got into a scuffle and Zimmerman shot the teenager in the chest."
On Monday, March 12, Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee held a press conference on the status of the investigation. He said that the police didn't have any evidence to dispute Zimmerman's claim of self-defence but the matter was being turned over to State Attorney Norman Wolfinger for a determination. The WFTV report on Lee's press conference again stated that Zimmerman had phoned police to "report a suspicious black man in the predominantly white neighbourhood." A WESH 2 report said that police had called for anyone that they hadn't interviewed, who knew anything about what happened, to please get in contact with them.
On March 15 2012 the Miami Herald interviewed Sybrina Fulton. A journalist asked Fulton: "Were you surprised to know that your son might have been in such an altercation, in Sanford, knowing his personality, knowing who he was...?" She replied: "Yes it surprised me that he got into an altercation..." "Why?" the reported asked. "Because that is not something that normally happens," Fulton replied, "He doesn't normally... he gets along with... he respects adults. He gets along with his peers. That wasn't something that's normal for him, to get into a fist fight, especially with an adult. So, of course I was surprised."
On March 15 WFTV ran an interview with Mary Cutcher, a witness it said had heard "a Sanford vigilante gun down a teenager on February 26". Cutcher told WFTV's Darlene Jones that "the cries stopped as soon as the gun went off. So I know it was the little boy." She said that she knew this was not self defence as "there was no punching, no hitting going on at the time. No wrestling." WFTV said Cutcher believed that Zimmerman tried to chase down Martin as he tried to get home.
Early the following morning another WFTV reporter interviewed Crump and Tracy Martin on their way out to their car. Asked why George Zimmerman should be charged with murder Tracy Martin replied: "My son was murdered. It wasn't an accident. My son did nothing to warrant it." Asked "how do you know it wasn't an accident? And why are you calling for Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee to resign?" Crump interjected: "We have no faith in the investigation. We believe it hasn't been fair and impartial at all... that this kid was killed in cold blood but yet they chose at every step of the way to protect George Zimmerman."
Later that morning the Martin family team held a press conference with Mary Cutcher and her housemate Selma Mora. Cutcher told journalists that "she heard the crying. It was a little boy. As soon as the gun went off the crying stopped. Therefore it tells me it was not Zimmerman crying." Mora meanwhile said that she had "heard the whine of a kid". Natalie Jackson told the journalists that "George Zimmerman profiled Trayvon because of race." She said Zimmerman "followed, stalked and pulled the trigger on Trayvon because he thought he had the authority to do so. He thought he was the police." She added that that day Zimmerman "was patrolling the neighbourhood as armed security."
A journalist at the press conference noted that the police report had said that George Zimmerman had had a bloody nose and bloodied back of his head after the incident. She then asked Sybrina Fulton "has your son been known to fight?" Fulton replied: "He has never been in trouble. He has never been arrested. The only thing I can say is that he was afraid and he was trying to defend himself." The journalist then asked: "He's never been in a fight ever...?" Fulton replied: "He's never been in a fight that I know of." During the press conference Crump reiterated that Trayvon Martin was "shot down and killed in cold blood." He also stated that the Martin family had no faith in the police investigation and that they had written to State Attorney Eric Holder asking him to launch a Department of Justice investigation.
Later that day the Martin family was played George Zimmerman's NEN call to police as well as the various 911 calls before and after the shooting, ahead of their public release later that evening. Bill Lee had argued against the release of the tapes but was overruled by Mayor Jeff Triplett. The tapes were played to the Martin family and their lawyers, as a group, in Triplett's office, with no law enforcement officers present. In comments to the media afterwards Crump said that Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were completely devastated "to hear their son being killed on that 911 tape, to hear his pleas, to hear - what now three witness have said... the young man crying out for help before George Zimmerman shot him in cold blood." Natalie Jackson commented that "The most shocking thing to me is you hear a shot, a warning shot. Then you hear a 17-year-old boy begging for his life, and then you hear another shot."
In an interview a few days later CNN's Anderson Cooper asked Sybrina Fulton whether she believed the person crying out for help on the 911 tape was her son. She replied: "Yes I do. I believe that is Trayvon Martin. That is my baby's voice. Every mother knows their child. And that's his voice." Asked by Cooper what the significance of this was Tracy Martin stated: "He was afraid for his life. He saw his death coming. He saw his death coming. The screams got more frantic-er... and at that second that we heard the shot the screams just completely stopped. He saw his death. He was pleading for his life."
In the same interview Crump - who was sitting on the sofa with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton - commented: "This really came down to the fact that he [Zimmerman] saw a young black male coming into a gated community and he made a conscious decision in his mind that he [Trayvon Martin] is not supposed to be here. He must be up to no good, he must be high... all these stereotypes he put on this kid. And when you look how these parents raised their son they did a good job raising their son... He was almost adult. He was almost a man. 17 years old. He was beating all the statistics that they try to put on young minorities."
The pictures the family had released of a young and innocent looking Trayvon Martin were reinforced by the testimonials of good conduct by his family, friends and teachers. A March 17 article in the Orlando Sentinel said that Michelle Kypriss, Trayvon Martin's English teacher at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in Miami, "described Trayvon, a junior, as an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness." The article noted however that "Trayvon was under a five-day suspension when he was shot that Sunday night, but Kypriss said it was due to tardiness and not misbehaviour. ‘Trayvon was not a violent or dangerous child. He was not known for misbehaving,' the teacher said. ‘He was suspended because he was late too many times'." A New York Times article that same day stated that: "Trayvon had no criminal record. He was suspended from his Miami high school for 10 days in February, which is the reason he was visiting his father. The family said the suspension was not for violent or criminal behaviour but for a violation of school policy."
A Miami Herald feature a few days later described Trayvon Martin as "6-foot-3, 140 pounds, a former Optimist League football player with a narrow frame and a voracious appetite. He wanted to fly or fix planes, struggled in chemistry, loved sports video games and went to New York for the first time two summers ago... He hoped to attend the University of Miami or Florida A&M University, enamored by both schools' bright orange and green hues." The article stated that "Trayvon's parents - his mother is a Miami-Dade government employee and his dad is a truck driver - divorced in 1999 but lived near each other in Miami Gardens, working hard to raise Trayvon with family values and lift him above the statistics."
The article quoted Sybrina Fulton as saying that Trayvon Martin "had been so looking forward to going to his junior prom, and he had already started talking about all the senior activities in high school. He will never do any of those things.'' Tracy Martin described his son to the newspaper as "a beautiful child. He was raised to have manners and be respectful. He was a teenager who still had a lot of kid in him."
Trayvon Martin had attended Miami Carol City High School before being transferred to Dr. Michael M. Krop. One of his teachers at Carol City, Ashley Gantt, described him as "just a sweet kid. He got As and Bs. If he received a C on an assignment, it was because he was just being a kid that day. He was very smart." The article noted that "Still, Trayvon had nonviolent behavioral issues in school, and on the day he was killed, he had been suspended for 10 days from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in North Miami-Dade. ‘He was not suspended for something dealing with violence or anything like that. It wasn't a crime he committed, but he was in an unauthorized area [on school property]," Martin said, declining to offer more details'."
On Tuesday March 20 Crump held a press conference where he announced the existence of an ear-witness whose testimony, he said, "blows George Zimmerman's absurd self defence claim out of the water." Crump said that on Sunday evening (March 18) Tracy Martin was examining phone records when he noticed that Trayvon had been on the phone with someone for some 400 minutes on the day of the shooting and, indeed, had been speaking with Trayvon until shortly before he was shot and killed. The following day (Monday, March 19) Crump conducted a telephonic interview with the witness - in the presence of inter alia Tracy Martin, Sybrina Fulton and Matt Guttman of ABC News. In his press conference on the Tuesday Crump described this witness in the following terms:
"She is a minor. Her parents are very worried about her. She is traumatized over this. This was her really, really close personal friend. They were dating. And so it's a situation where to know that you were the last person to talk to the young man who you thought was one of the most special people in the world to you, and know that he got killed moments after he was talking to you, is just riveting to this young lady. In fact, she couldn't even go to his wake she was so sick. Her mother had to take her to the hospital. She spent the night in the hospital. She is traumatized beyond anything you could imagine."
Guttman, who also interviewed the witness, described her as Martin's "girlfriend". Guttman said she was a "16-year-old girl, who is only being identified as DeeDee."
Crump then claimed that DeeDee (though he did not call her this in the press conference) "connects the dots" in George Zimmerman's NEN call. He stated that Trayvon Martin had decided "to go to the store to get some snacks before the NBA all-star game is about to start." Martin was talking to her on the way there and back again. Martin was "his regular self, all this stuff about him being high and stuff is preposterous. It's what Zimmerman wants you to believe so he can justify killing this kid in cold blood. Trayvon Martin's mother and dad and all of his teachers, they have given the information about what kind of person Trayvon Martin was." He also described as preposterous the claim that Trayvon Martin "was the aggressor".
Crump added that when Martin "came out from the store, he said it was starting to rain, he was going to try to make it home before it rained. Then he tells her it starts raining hard. He runs into the apartment complex and runs to the first building he sees to try to get out of the rain. He was trying to get shelter. So he tries to get out of the rain. And unbeknownst to him, he is being watched...." According to DeeDee's account, transmitted by Crump, Martin then desperately tried to escape from Zimmerman who chased him down before finally confronting him.
"She says that Trayvon says he's going to try to lose him. He's running trying to lose him. He tells her, I think I lost him. So, he's walking and then she says that he says very simply, oh, he's right behind me. He's right behind me again. And so she says "run." He says, I'm not going to run. I'm going to walk fast. At that point, she says Trayvon -- she hears Trayvon say, why are you following me. She hears the other boy say, what are you doing around here. And again, Trayvon says, why are you following me. And that's when she says again he said, what are you doing around here. Trayvon is pushed. The reason she concludes, because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech. Then the other thing, she believes the earplug fell out of his ear. She can hear faint noises but no longer has the contact. She hears an altercation going and she says, then suddenly, somebody must have hit the phone and it went out because that's the last she hears."
This was proof, Crump argued, that George Zimmerman had continue to pursue Trayvon Martin after the NEN dispatcher told him not to do so. Crump concluded the press conference by demanding: "Arrest George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin in cold blood today. Arrest this killer. He killed this child in cold blood. Right now, he is free as a jay bird, he's allowed to go and come as he please while Trayvon Martin is in a grave."
In a March 22 2012 interview Anderson Cooper asked Tracy Martin about the police report indicating that Zimmerman had "had blood on the back of his head, on his face. Have they said anything to you about how it got there? If it was his blood or your son's blood. Have they given you details?" Martin replied: "They told me that it was an altercation between the two individuals. But the details, they didn't give them to me." (Ten days later he gave a detailed and largely accurate exposition to a Reuters journalist of Zimmerman's account - as related to him by Chris Serino on February 28.)
On March 26 the Miami Herald reported that Trayvon Martin had been suspended from school on at least three occasions - and it provided the reasons for two of those suspensions. As to the third suspension the article quoted the family as saying, "Trayvon had earlier been suspended for tardiness and truancy." In reaction to this report Crump replied angrily: "Trayvon was an average kid. He never gave evidence of any violence. Trayvon is dead and can't defend himself. Had Zimmerman not disobeyed the dispatcher and gotten out of the car, Trayvon would be alive. That we do know."
Following Crump's press conference on March 20 the Federal, State and Local Government authorities obediently lined up behind the Martin team's demands. On that day the Department of Justice announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation would be looking into the case. On March 21 the Sanford City Commission voted 3 to 2 that they had "no confidence" in Police Chief Bill Lee. Lee announced the next day he would "temporarily" step down. (He was fired permanently a few months later.) On March 22 Florida Governor Rick Scott and his Attorney General Pam Bondi prevailed upon Norman Wolfinger to step down from the investigation - and hand it over to Angela Corey.
Then, during a press conference at the White House, President Obama made very clear where his sympathies lay. He told reporters: "I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident. But my main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we're going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened."
Obama's comments helped turn a growing wave of outrage over the killing and the non-arrest of Zimmerman into a tsunami. On March 21 over a million people had signed the Martin family petition calling for the arrest of George Zimmerman. By March 26 this had risen to two million. Hoodie marches were held across the country. Zimmerman and his family were subjected to numerous public death threats and were living in fear of their lives - as various celebrities decided to try and out their home addresses on Twitter.
Much of the media too seemed to have largely bought into the version of events that had been provided to them by the Martin team - and they started publishing inadequately vetted information that appeared to buttress that account. WFTV described Zimmerman as a "vigilante" in its reports. NBC edited Zimmerman's NEN call to make it appear that he had racially profiled Martin. ABC News screened blurred CCTV footage from the Sanford police station following the shooting on February 26 which apparently showed Zimmerman being led in without blood or bruises. NBC News also reported that "In August 2005, Zimmerman's ex-fiancee, Veronica Zuazo, filed a civil motion for a restraining order alleging domestic violence. Zimmerman counterfiled for a restraining order against Zuazo. The competing claims were resolved with both restraining orders being granted."
The Orlando Sentinel found a "leading expert in the field of forensic voice identification" who analyzed the screams on the 911 call and concluded: "It was not George Zimmerman who called for help." WFTV, ABC News and CNN suggested that Zimmerman had muttered the racial slur "fucking coons" under his breath on the NEN call as he followed after Trayvon Martin. CNN would later walk back this claim stating that Zimmerman had muttered "fucking cold" (he had actually said "fucking punks.")
In a front page story the New York Times claimed that Zimmerman had made 46 calls to 911 over the past fourteen months (it was actually over an eight year time period.). On CNN Anderson Cooper stated that "dispatchers told Zimmerman not to even get out of his car... He apparently followed Trayvon Martin, and at about 100 yards away from where Trayvon was going to meet his dad, confronted him."
These and other reports were rapidly picked up by other media and transmitted across the world as proven fact.
On Tuesday, April 10, the Grand Jury was due to convene to consider the evidence in the case and decide whether there was probable cause to charge George Zimmerman. However on April 9 Angela Corey said that she was going to bypass the Grand Jury process and make the decision on whether to charge Zimmerman herself. On April 11 she announced that she was charging Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder - a crime which carried with it a sentence of up to life in prison.
The probable cause affidavit produced to justify the arrest regurgitated many of the claims made by the Martin family through the course of March. The affidavit said Zimmerman "profiled" Trayvon Martin and "assumed he was a criminal." It cited Trayvon Martin's "friend's" testimony and stated that Zimmerman had continued to pursue Martin after the police dispatcher had told him not to do so. It also relied upon Sybrina Fulton's claim that the cries heard on the 911 recording were those of Trayvon Martin. The affidavit made no reference to Zimmerman's claim of self-defence or any evidence that may have supported it.
Images of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman
The image presented of George Zimmerman in those first two weeks was of a thuggish-looking, white, violence prone, gun toting vigilante who had pursued, confronted and then shot Martin in cold blood (despite the latter's desperate pleas for mercy) after racially profiling him as a criminal. By contrast, Martin - who looked "younger than his 17 years", as one article put it - was an innocent. He was an A and B student planning on going to University whom, it was initially claimed, had never got in trouble or been involved in crime or violence.
It later turned out that George Zimmerman was neither white nor racially-minded. Indeed, he was something of a poster-child for post-racial America. His mother was Peruvian and of mixed racial ancestry (including black African ancestry). His father was a white American. He was fluent in both Spanish and English. He grew up in a completely multi-racial family environment, had black foster-siblings as a child, took a black girl to the prom, had close black friends and mentored two black children from the ghetto along with his wife. The FBI interviews of over 30 of his colleagues and acquaintances could find no evidence of anti-black prejudice or stereotyping.
He had been arrested in 2005 after, according to his version, he went to the aid of a friend in the bar who was being accosted by someone in civilian dress. It turned out that person was an undercover drug and alcohol agent and he was promptly arrested. The charges were later reduced to nothing after he agreed to undergo a pre-trial diversion programme. He had helped initiate, and went on to be duly appointed as co-ordinator for, the neighbourhood watch programme at the Retreat at Twin Lakes. This was after a spate of burglaries, and one home invasion, mostly by young black males. His ex-fiancée - with whom he had had an acrimonious relationship that ended in both taking out restraining orders against the other - told the FBI that Zimmerman "was not the type of person to place himself in a physical confrontation." In the trial he was described as "meek" by the Sanford Police's neighbour watch organiser, Wendy Dorival, and "physically soft" by his gym instructor Adam Pollock.
The picture of Trayvon Martin, presented by the Martin team, in March 2012, has subsequently been proven to be highly misleading; in one respect literally so. The photograph of Martin in a Hollister shirt was of when he was, according to one article, twelve years old. The first tranche of images released by Martin's family, all of a much younger Trayvon, appear to have tainted a number of witnesses' testimony. Martin was not a "little boy" on February 26 2012. He was over 6 foot and weighed over 158lbs.
For many boys making the transition from adolescence to successful adulthood can be a treacherous game of snakes and ladders. It is now apparent that, whatever his earlier promise, Trayvon Martin was on a rapid downward slide at the time his path intersected with that of Zimmerman's. According to a sympathetic profile in Esquire he had failed the FCAT, the Florida standardised test that he needed in order to graduate and progress on to college. He had also "missed fifty-three days of school between August and February." He regularly smoked marijuana, had an interest in street fighting and, it seems, was involved in petty criminality as well. This was reflected in his three suspensions from school in the four months leading up to February 26.
The first of these occurred on October 20 2011 after Trayvon Martin was observed by the principal Francisco Garnica on the school's CCTV camera system in "an unauthorised area (3122 hallway) hiding and being suspicious". As Martin exited the hallway door he was seen writing on it. "Upon reading the graffiti it read W.T.F (what the fuck)." The following day Garnica found Martin, who was known to him, and looked for the marker in the bag. "There he discovered numerous women's jewelry and a large screwdriver (burglary tool)." Miami Dade School Resource Officer Darryl Dunn was called. "When asked did the items belong to his mother, family members or girlfriend Martin replied it's not mine. A friend gave it to me. Martin declined to give his friends name." Martin was "suspended, warned and dismissed for the graffiti." The various items of jewelry and the burglary tool were impounded. However, they were listed as "found" not "stolen" property as, it appears, the Miami-Dade School Police Department were under pressure to keep crime statistics down. As a result the case was buried within the school disciplinary system and not subjected to criminal investigation (or linked to any recent burglaries in the area).
The second suspension appears to have been for fighting. In a text message exchange extracted from his cellphone, dated November 7 2011, he was asked by a correspondent "You Didn't Go to School?" He replied:
Naw I'm suspended
Wat Yhuu Did?
In another exchange two weeks later (November 21 2011) he commented that he was "Tired nd sore": His correspondent replied:
Me too, but wat happen tah yuhh??
Cause man dat nigga snitched on me
Bae y yuu always fightinqq man, yu got suspended?
Naw we thumped afta skool in a ducked off spot
Oh well Damee
I lost da 1st [round] :( but won da 2nd nd 3rd
Ohh So It Wass 3 Rounds? Damee well at least yu won lol but yuu needa stop fightinqq bae Forreal
Naw im not done wit fool...he gone have 2 see me a again
Nooe bae Stop, yuu aint qonn bee satisfied till yuh qet suspended again huh?
Naw but he aint breed [bleed] nuff 4 me, only his nose... but afta dat im done.
In a text message sent the follow day he commented on his loss in the first round: "Yea cause he got mo hits cause in da 1st round he had me on da ground nd i couldn't do ntn." That evening he told a correspondent via text message that his mother had just told him she was kicking him out the house:
My mom just told me i gotta move wit my dad
So what does that mean?
She just kicked me out :(
I promise u my mom just told me i gotta move
What did you do now?
Da police caught me outta skool
Lol really dude?
So you just turning into a lil hoodlum
No not at all
U a hoodlum
Naw I'm a gangsta
Lies.com...lol u soft
Boy don't get one planted in your chest
Lol im scared
You should be
This decision was given effect the following month and he moved in with his father on December 22 2011. In mid-February 2012 Trayvon Martin was again suspended (until the 29th), after being bust at school with a marijuana pipe and a baggie with marijuana residue in it. On Tuesday February 21 2012 he was sent by bus to Orlando to stay with Brandy Green and her son Chad in the Retreat at Twin Lakes. He took marijuana with him, which he smuggled on his person.
Thus, although the Martin family's initial testimony about Trayvon's good character had done much to generate public sympathy for their cause, a huge amount of evidence subsequently emerged painting a very different picture. Significantly, the prosecution fought to exclude from trial any reference to Trayvon Martin's school records, his suspensions, marijuana use, involvement in fights, among other things, as this would all "prejudice the jury" against him.
When Martin's family members testified at trial prosecutors were careful not to speak positively about Trayvon as this would have allowed the defence to unleash a flood of evidence in rebuttal. The prosecution also argued against the presentation to the jury of the post-mortem toxicology report which showed that Martin had some traces of THC and its metabolite in his blood after the shooting. (Although the judge ruled in favour of the defence, and permitted the introduction of this evidence, they eventually chose not to present it.)
Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman's paths intersect
At 18:22 on the evening of February 26 2012 Trayvon Martin entered the local 711 - a 10 to 15 minute walk away from the Retreat at Twin Lakes (see image "1" in Graphic 2). At 18:25 he exited, after paying for a packet of Skittles and a can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail. He put the skittles in his pocket and was given a 711 plastic bag in which he carried the can out of the store. The NBA All Stars game was due to start at 19:30, so just over an hour later. It appears that Martin was in no rush to get back home for it was only at around 19:08 that he was spotted by George Zimmerman near an informal pedestrian short cut into the Retreat (see arrow "A" on Graphic 1). It was dark, raining and windy by this time.
Graphic 1: Google map of the Retreat at Twin Lakes as marked by George Zimmerman during police interview (annotated by Politicsweb)
A: Where George Zimmerman says he saw Trayvon Martin; B: the clubhouse where he parked to phone the NEN; C: Where he says he parked his car; D: The "T" where the altercation began.
Zimmerman was in his Honda, driving along Retreat View Circle on his way to Target to do his regular weekly grocery shopping, when he spotted Martin outside the house of Frank Taaffe, over whose property the short cut ran. A few weeks before Zimmerman had seen Taaffe's house being scoped out by a suspicious person, and had called the police. It turned out that this individual, who lived in the neighbourhood, had been involved in a number of burglaries in the area.
According to Zimmerman's account to police the following day Martin was standing on the grassy area outside of the house and looking around. He was not walking with any sense of purpose, even though it was raining. Wendy Dorival had told the meeting setting up the neighbourhood watch to phone 911 if they saw any criminal activity, and to phone the police non-emergency number if they saw any suspicious behaviour. Zimmerman phoned the NEN. He drove on past Martin and stopped at the Retreat's club house further up the road (arrow "B"). At some point Martin walked past Zimmerman and down to the road to the right. Zimmerman followed after him to maintain line of sight, parking some way down Twin Trees Lane (arrow "C"). At a certain point Martin disappeared into the darkness between two rows of townhouses then came back out and circled Zimmerman's car. The call initiated at 19:09:34 and proceeded as follows:
Zimmerman: Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing?
Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He's here now. He's just staring...
Dispatcher: OK, he's just walking around the area...
Zimmerman: ...looking at all the houses.
Zimmerman: Now he's just staring at me.
Zimmerman: Yeah, now he's coming towards me.
Zimmerman: He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.
Dispatcher: How old would you say he looks?
Zimmerman: He's got button on his shirt, late teens.
Dispatcher: Late teens ok.
Zimmerman: Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands, I don't know what his deal is.
Dispatcher: Just let me know if he does anything ok
Zimmerman: See if you can get an officer over here
Dispatcher: Yeah we've got someone on the way, just let me know if this guy does anything else.
Zimmerman: Okay. ... These assholes they always get away.
For 26 seconds the dispatcher and Zimmerman discuss where to meet, and Zimmerman gives confused directions on how to get to him. Zimmerman then interrupts to say: "Shit he's running". The dispatcher asks: "He's running? Which way is he running?" Martin had run up through a pedestrian cut through between two sets of townhouses; so could not be followed by car. In response to the question Zimmerman can be heard unbuckling his seat belt and opening his car door. Zimerman states: "Down towards the other entrance to the neighbourhood." He can then be heard shutting the car door.
Dispatcher: Which entrance is that that he's heading towards?
Zimmerman: The back entrance...
Wind sounds are audible at this point and Zimmerman can be heard muttering under his breath, "fucking punks".
Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Dispatcher: Ok, we don't need you to do that.
A few seconds later Zimmerman says "he ran" meaning, it seems, "he's gone". He then discusses with the dispatcher where to meet, at some point noting further on, "I don't know where this kid is". Zimmerman later told police that he was not chasing after Martin, but rather trying to keep him in line of sight so that he could report to the dispatcher where "the suspect" had gone. Although he had a torch with him it was dead, and he can be heard on the call hitting it to try to get it to work again.
Zimmerman told police that during the course of the conversation he walked from his car, past the "T" (arrow "D) - the pedestrian path to the right through two sets of townhouses (which was pitch dark at the time) - and up to Retreat View Circle which was lit. Again Zimmerman provides hopelessly confused directions, and he and the dispatcher eventually agree that the police will call him on his cellphone on their arrival.
There is about a twenty second gap between when Zimmerman says "he's running" to the dispatcher asking "are you following him?" They carried on talking for another minute and forty seconds. Even at average walking pace this would have been more than enough time for Trayvon Martin to reach Brandy Green's house. It was approximately another two minutes after Zimmerman's call to the NEN ended before the altercation began.
According to Zimmerman's account to police, later that evening, he thought that Martin was long gone and was walking back towards the truck when, at the "T" (arrow "D"), Martin emerged out of the darkness and asked "do you have a problem?" He replied "I don't have a problem" and was reaching for his cellphone to call 911 when Martin said "you do now", punched him in the nose, and, after a struggle, pushed him onto the ground. Zimmerman fell onto his back and Martin got on top of him and continued beating him. Zimmerman says he started calling out for help. When he tried to sit up Martin slammed his head into the concrete sidewalk. "My head felt it was it was going to explode." As he continued to yell for help Martin put his hand on Zimmerman's mouth and broken nose and told him to "shut the fuck up".
Zimmerman told police that as he was squirming to get his head away from the concrete and onto the grass his firearm, which had been completely concealed up until this point, was exposed. Martin said "you gonna die tonight motherfucker" and Zimmerman felt him reaching for his gun. Zimmerman unholstered the gun, pulled it out, and fired a single shot into Martin's chest. Martin then sat back saying "you got me". Zimmerman then got out from under him and Martin toppled over, face first, into the grass. Zimmerman then, in turn, got on top of Martin and spread out his arms to see whether Martin had any weapon in his hands.
Sanford police officer Tim Smith arrived at the scene very shortly afterwards. He found Zimmerman standing over Martin with a bleeding nose and watery eyes. The back of Zimmerman's reddish jacket was wet and covered in grass. Smith handcuffed Zimmerman and took his gun out of its holster. Zimmerman, he said, was completely co-operative. Smith testified at trial that as he was walking Zimmerman to his police car Zimmerman told him, in a confused state, that he had been yelling for help and no-one would come help him.
At the scene two photographs were taken of Zimmerman's injuries (see image "2" and "3" in Graphic 2): One of his back of his head, bleeding in two places, and the other of his face, with his nose bloodied and broken. Martin was found lying face down: The can of Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail in the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, and the plastic bag from 711 lying on the concrete path a short distance away. He died at the scene despite efforts by police and paramedics to resuscitate him.
Graphic 2: Trayvon Martin at the 711 shortly before, and George Zimmerman shortly after, their altercation
There was only one eyewitness to the actual fight. John Good testified at trial that he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman subjecting him to a Mixed Martial Arts style "ground and pound" beating. He also said he heard Zimmerman crying out for help. However, he then went back into the house to call 911 so did not see the fatal gunshot.
At the trial Vincent de Maio, a renowned forensic pathologist, testified as an expert witness for the defence. He said that he agreed with the firearms examiner that Zimmerman's gun had been discharged against Trayvon Martin's clothing. From the powder tattooing around the wound, however, he estimated that the muzzle of the gun was two-to-four inches from the skin when it went off. "If you're lying on your back, the clothing is going to be against your chest," DiMaio told the court. "So the fact that we know the clothing was 2 to 4 inches away is consistent with someone leaning over the person doing the shooting." De Maio also testified that Martin would have been conscious for at least 10 to 15 seconds after the shot. He said that Zimmerman's injuries were consistent both with being punched in the face and having his head bashed against concrete. He identified six separate injuries. (By contrast, Martin had an offensive injury on one of his knuckles and no defensive injuries - other than the gunshot wound in his chest.)
The trail of items dropped by Zimmerman and Martin during their scuffle, and documented by the crime scene technician, was also consistent with Zimmerman's claim that the confrontation had begun at the T. Graphic 4 is a reconstruction of the crime scene by Contrast Forensics, which was used by the defence in court. As can be seen from it Zimmerman's key chain and mini-torch, which he had been using instead of his main flashlight, was found close to the "T" (Marker 1). Zimmerman and Martin ended up some distance further along the path just outside of John Good's house. Jenna Lauer - whose 911 call captured the screams - lived in the house to the right of Good's.
Graphic 3: Reconstruction of the scene layout by Contrast Forensics
The "T" in turn was a short distance, perhaps a thirty second walk, from Zimmerman's car. The laws of time and space seem to dictate then that Martin would have had to circle back in order for his path to intersect with Zimmerman's again.
By the end of the trial there was little serious dispute that Martin had punched Zimmerman in the face, bashed his head against the concrete, and that he was sitting on top of him when the fatal gunshot went off. It was also very clear from the totality of the evidence presented that it was Zimmerman's voice that was recorded screaming for help on Jenna Lauer's 911 call, despite Sybrina Fulton's testimony to the contrary, something that the police had actually determined very early on in their investigation.
The only serious evidence that stood at odds with Zimmerman's account was that of "DeeDee" whose real name, it emerged at trial, was Rachel Jeantel. (Mary Cutcher's testimony was regarded as being of so little value that she wasn't even called to testify by the prosecution). Phone records presented to court did confirm that Martin was on the phone to Jeantel's cellphone number in the lead up to the altercation.
Jeantel testified under oath that she had been 18 years at the time of the shooting (so not a minor), that she wasn't Trayvon Martin's girlfriend, hadn't dated him, and also had not been hospitalised for high blood pressure at the time of the wake. In other words Crump's description of her in his March 20 press conference was entirely false. In an affidavit submitted before the trial Crump claimed that at the time of the interview he did not know either Jeantel's surname or address. He was also unable to produce an uninterrupted recording of his initial interview with her - having, he said, stopped and restarted the recording multiple times.
Jeantel testified in court that the exchange had begun with Martin asking "why are you following me for?" and a "hard breath man" replying "what are you doing around here?" Then she said she heard what she thought was the headset being bumped. Then she heard "wet grass sounds" and then "I kinda heard Trayvon saying get off, get off." The phone call then cut off.
By the end of the trial were two areas of residual doubt. These were, firstly, what exactly happened during the two minutes from the end of Zimmerman's NEN call to the beginning of the altercation. And, secondly, how the verbal altercation was initiated - with Zimmerman's and Jeantel's testimony of what was said in direct conflict with each other.
Setting these aside, it was evident by the end of the trial that very few of the claims made by the Martin family team, in March 2012, still stood up to any kind of scrutiny. The prosecution produced no credible evidence that Zimmerman had either pursued Trayvon Martin after being told, by the dispatcher, that he didn't need to follow after him, or that he had initiated the confrontation. It is clear from a careful reading of the NEN call that the dispatcher never told Zimmerman "not to get out of his car". In fact Zimmerman had exited his vehicle in an effort to comply with an apparent request, by the dispatcher, to tell him in which direction Martin was running.
The claim that Martin was "completely unarmed" was misleading, given the documented injuries he had inflicted on Zimmerman with his fists and the concrete. The assertion that it was Martin crying out for help on the 911 call, though harder to disprove, was also clearly false. So was the incendiary claim, repeated many times by Crump, that Zimmerman had shot Martin "in cold blood".
In the chapter on "national delusions" in his 1852 work Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles MacKay noted how "In reading the history of nations, we find that, like individuals, they have their whims and their peculiarities; their seasons of excitement and recklessness, when they care not what they do. We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first. "
The Trayvon Martin story is a case study in how, even in the modern day, an advanced industrialised democracy can completely lose its senses; and how difficult it is for it to then recover them. In this particular matter a whole society seemingly fixed its mind on the one object of having George Zimmerman arrested, convicted and sent to jail for life, in reckless disregard of the evidence and the law. The mainstream media, so-called civil rights organisations, the Democrat President of the US, the US Attorney General, the Republican Governor of Florida and his Attorney General, and State Attorney Angela Corey all combined forces in an effort to destroy a single, isolated individual.
Yet, as documented above, we now know that the incendiary claims made by the Martin family team - which ignited and then fuelled this state of national hysteria - were almost all bogus. Zimmerman's legal team came very close to proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that their client had acted in reasonable fear of his life and great bodily injury in shooting Trayvon Martin; an inversion of the usual burden of proof. The Sanford police knew from the beginning that the evidence tended to support Zimmerman's self-defence claim which is why they had been reluctant to make an arrest.
The failures of the mainstream media in their reporting on this case were manifold. The claims of the Martin family team should have, from the beginning, been treated with some degree of caution. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, and their lawyers, had two motivations in campaigning in the way that they did for the arrest of George Zimmerman. The one was obviously vengeance, the other greed. Following the arrest of Zimmerman Benjamin Crump sent a letter on May 9 to the Retreat at Twin Lakes' Homeowners' Association announcing the intention of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton to file suit. This had always been the intention of the Martin family and their lawyers. Natalie Jackson had sent a letter to the HOA on March 14 2012 demanding that they preserve any evidence relating to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The Martin team reached a settlement agreement with the HOA's insurers in early April 2013, which Zimmerman's lawyers estimated amounted to over a million dollars.
Such precautionary scepticism should have been redoubled once the Martin family team had been caught out, very early on, lying about Trayvon Martin's school record and the existence of and reasons for his multiple suspensions. Instead, they were repeatedly given a free pass, even by the more critically minded journalists and commentators.
The media should also have known to hold back from judgment during the crucial period in which the Sanford police were not publicly divulging the evidence they had at their disposal. Reporters and editors also needed to keep their cool as the mood of national hysteria started building; instead many lost their heads and ran off to join the mob.
From late March 2012 evidence started emerging both of Trayvon Martin's troubled recent past and of what had actually transpired on the night of February 26 2012. But while individual pieces of evidence were reported on, the mainstream media appeared to be disinterested in seriously challenging the narrative that had been constructed by the Martin family team. Indeed, much media reporting of this time displayed all the symptoms of confirmatory bias: Poorly vetted and inflammatory stories were run in support of the Martin team's narrative, while substantive evidence that contradicted it was ignored or its significance downplayed.
Most noticeably, no effort was made to get to the bottom of who Trayvon Martin really was or to interrogate the curious (and convenient) emergence of "DeeDee" as an ear-witness just after the public release of Zimmerman's NEN call. Such critical forensic analysis, as there was, was performed not by the mainstream media but on marginal websites such as The Wagist (initially), TalkLeft and The Conservative Treehouse.
This misreporting of the case continued after Zimmerman's acquittal, with the New York Times, Guardian and Washington Post all running grudging editorials in response. The New York Times decreed that the case was all about race and suggested that a conviction might have "provided an emotional catharsis." The Washington Post continued to repeat, as fact, the Crump claim that "Mr. Zimmerman could have done what police told him to do and stayed in his vehicle."
Ultimately it appears that much of the mainstream media was too compromised by its earlier misreporting to seriously review their own conduct, or even belatedly straighten out the facts, let alone challenge the conduct of the Martin team or the prosecutors in the case.
It could be argued that the judicial system worked - with Zimmerman being found "not guilty" by the jury of six. This was regarded as the correct verdict by serious-minded Florida lawyers who had followed the trial closely. However, a gross miscarriage of justice was more narrowly averted than might appear in hindsight.
Zimmerman had lost his job after the incident and been forced to go into hiding. He was thus utterly impecunious. He was able to present a proper defence only due to donations from ordinary people, raised through an internet site, and the willingness of two fine lawyers to defend him, though he had no means of paying them. No "human rights" or "civil rights" organisation came to his aid and no significant mainstream liberal publication spoke out on his behalf.
Meanwhile, Angela Corey's prosecution team - led by Bernie de la Rionda - were absolutely committed to securing his conviction. The first law enforcement interview of Rachel Jeantel was conducted by De la Rionda in Sybrina Fulton's living room, in front of Fulton. This killed off any possibility of getting untainted testimony from Jeantel as to what she had actually heard on the night of February 26. The prosecution were repeatedly and justifiably accused by Zimmerman's defence team of withholding crucial exculpatory material in the run up to the trial.
In the court itself the prosecution conducted themselves like unscrupulous defence lawyers - calling (or trying to call) dodgy ‘expert witnesses' to shore up their non-case, relying on tainted and conflicted witness testimony, doing whatever they could to raise doubts over the most clear-cut of evidence, and making base appeals to the emotions of the jury. If and when Judge Debra Nelson exhibited any bias, it was always in favour of the prosecution. She rushed the case to trial - despite the defence's repeated appeals for a postponement - and also ruled Trayvon Martin's text messages on his fighting prowess inadmissible on highly questionable grounds.
The response of the prosecution to the verdict, as with their allies in the media, was surly and resentful. When asked by an interviewer for one word to describe Zimmerman Angela Corey responded: "murderer". Barack Obama and Eric Holder meanwhile have chosen not to call off their dogs and Zimmerman remains under investigation by the FBI and DOJ. Such responses, though disturbing, are perhaps not surprising. For, as Mackay wrote: "Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one."
* CORRECTION August 14 2013: This article originally stated that the petition was originally directed to inter alia State Attorney Angela Corey and US Attorney General Eric Holder. These names were added later, with Corey being substituted for Wolfinger following his removal from the case.
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