The Aftermath of the George Zimmerman Case, Part 1: The Trial, the Evidence and the VerdictBy Jonathan Cohen
The aftermath of the verdict in the George Zimmerman case has been as depressing as the actions and atmosphere during the 17 months preceding the trial. The misuse of state power for political purposes and the deliberate misleading of the public by much of the media concerning the facts of the case pre-trial, has been matched in the aftermath by the threats by the US Department of Justice to retry the case in Federal Court and the refusal by many politicians and members of the press to explain the verdict as stemming from the evidence presented at trial. The collection of witness testimony, physical evidence and the forensic evaluation of the gunshot wound that clearly pointed towards Zimmerman's innocence. In coming to grips with the verdict's implications one must begin with an understanding of the actual evidence in the case. This is the first article in a three part series about the case. This article is devoted to a synopsis of the key evidence in the trial, highlighting the misconceptions that have been promulgated frequently in the media's reporting. In the second, the role of the media, the lawyers and the racial divide will be explored. The third article will reflect on how racial history impacts how people viewed the case.
Facts in the case
The map below is a useful aid in understanding the evidence in the case. Zimmerman's truck was located on the map at the cut through crossing Twin Trees and leading to the top of the T which leads to the east section of Retreat View Circle. It is the point from which he started walking along the cut through towards Retreat View. The phone call to the dispatcher begins with Zimmerman in the truck and continues as he follows the path. The distance from the "T" to Brandy Green's Townhouse is about 80 yards. That gives a perspective of the relative distances involved in the movements of Zimmerman and Martin. The X marks where Trayvon Martin was shot.
In understanding the confusion on the part of people discussing the case in the aftermath of the verdict it is important to clear up some misconceptions. These mistakes are the result of pre-trial misstatements of facts in the media and also follow from a failure to correct them in the media commentary that accompanied the reporting on the trial. TM house denotes Brandy Green's townhouse.
1. "The death of Trayvon Martin happened because George Zimmerman disobeyed a policeman's order to stay in his car and not follow Trayvon Martin."
2. "Trayvon would not have been killed if Zimmerman had not kept him from returning to the condo where he was staying with his father." (Henceforth we will refer to this place as Brandy Green's townhouse).
This is contradicted by the following
3. "Trayvon Martin was racially profiled by George Zimmerman".
This is contradicted by the phone call to the dispatcher.
George Zimmerman: We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there's a real suspicious guy. It's Retreat View Circle. 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. [00:25] [7:11:59]
George Zimmerman: Yeah, now he's coming toward me. He's got his hands in his waist band.
In other words, he now confirms that Martin is black from which it can be inferred that he was initially unsure. Given the darkness and rainy conditions at the time, it is highly unlikely that Zimmerman could have identified Martin as Black when he first became suspicious of him. Furthermore, it is known from earlier recorded calls that Zimmerman, for purpose of identification, did not hesitate to mention the race of people he saw whether they were white or black. The likely reason he didn't initially volunteer the race of Martin was that he simply didn't know.
4. "George Zimmerman confronted Trayvon Martin".
No evidence of this was presented at the trial.
5. "It is not clear who was calling for help".
In fact the evidence at the trial was overwhelming that it was Zimmerman calling for help.
What actually happened
It is impossible to know exactly what happened but there is enough witness testimony, digitally recorded information and forensic evidence to get a good general outline of events. Zimmerman, while driving to get groceries, noticed Martin wandering around in the rain and became suspicious. He pulled into the parking lot at the clubhouse on the north part of Retreat view circle and called the police department's non-emergency number to report a suspicious person. After being prompted for the racial or ethnic identity of the person he said "he looks black", though the hesitancy of his answer indicates that he wasn't sure. When Martin comes closer to his car, he reports to the police dispatcher that the suspicious person is black, reinforcing the likelihood that Zimmerman's suspicions were aroused by Martin's behavior rather than his race. From a comparison of the dispatcher call and Zimmerman's statements to police as well as what can be gleaned from Rachel Jeantel's testimony the following is what occurred. The phone call begins at 7:09:34. Martin passes by Zimmerman's car heading east along Retreat View Circle at 7:10:37. At 7:10:54 he comes back towards Zimmerman's car and from the call you can tell Zimmerman is now afraid.
George Zimmerman: Uh, huh. Something's wrong with him. Yep, he's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is. [01:20][7:10:54]
The dispatcher replies with the following instructions:
911 dispatcher: Let me know if he does anything, OK?
This makes two times the dispatcher has asked for information that requires Zimmerman to observe Martin. Martin heads east again on Retreat view Circle, turning south onto Twin Trees. Zimmerman temporarily loses sight of Martin and pulls out of the clubhouse, turns east on Retreat View Circle and then south on Twin Trees and regains sight of Martin. At 7:11:42 Zimmerman reports Martin running away. Specifically, the transcript of the call reads
"George Zimmerman: He's running. [2:08] [7:11:42]
There is a sound of either labored breathing or wind rushing from about 7:11:52 until 7:12:02 which seems to mark the point at which Zimmerman gets out of his car and starts following Martin. This time interval of about ten seconds is the only point at which there is concrete evidence that Zimmerman is actually following Martin on foot and it is important to note that he embarks on the pursuit after the dispatcher asks Zimmerman "which way is he running?" This is the third request from the dispatcher indicating he wants Zimmerman to continue to observe Martin's actions and movements. Given the conversation with the dispatcher, it would seem that Martin's running away heightened Zimmerman's belief that Martin was a burglar. On the other hand, when Zimmerman started following him in his car, Martin probably thought that Zimmerman was acting suspiciously.
Insight into why Trayvon starts running away can be inferred from the testimony of Rachel Jeantel who is on the phone with Martin at this time. In her testimony at the trial she says that in response to Martin reporting he is being followed (in a car) by a "creepy assed cracker," she tells Martin that the guy following him is a rapist and tells him to run home. In her interview with Piers Morgan, she makes it very clear that she was warning Martin that the man he saw following him was probably a gay predator and that he needed to run home. Martin said he would walk quickly and, according to Jeantel's testimony, reported that he had reached Brandy Green's townhouse. He also says he is no longer being followed.
After Zimmerman says "ok" in response to the suggestion that he need not follow Martin, the discussion with the dispatcher continues:
911 dispatcher: Alright, sir, what is your name? [2:34] [7:12:08]
It is reasonable to assume the statement "He ran" means that Zimmerman has lost sight of Martin. The conversation continues for another minute in which they discuss where he should meet with the police. At about 3:40 the following dialogue takes place.
911 dispatcher: OK, what's your apartment number?
This part of the call confirms that Zimmerman no longer has sight of Trayvon. It also confirms that Zimmerman could no longer be following Martin because he doesn't know where he is; moreover, it also suggests that he is sufficiently afraid of Martin that he would be unlikely to confront him.
At this point a review of the map of Retreat View Circle is important. There is an east-west pathway (a cut through) between the streets Twin Trees and Retreat View Circle. About halfway along this path there is a pathway going south from the cut through that leads to the back of the Brandy Green's townhouse, the two paths in essence forming a T. The distance from where Martin is staying to the intersection point of the paths is about 80 yards. The north side of the cut through is lined with the backs of town houses as are both sides of the north-south path that leads to where Martin is staying, a fact that makes it difficult for a person walking along the top of the T to see someone on the stem of the T unless he is at the intersection point.
Zimmerman at this point has left his car and is walking towards Retreat View Circle to find a street address. As he walks back from Retreat Circle he crosses the intersection of the two paths and encounters Trayvon Martin who has left the back of Brandy Green's town house and has headed back to the intersection point of the T. It can be inferred from Rachel Jeantel's cell phone records that at approximately 7:15:50 Martin reports once again seeing Zimmerman. He initiates a verbal exchange with Zimmerman which becomes physical combat almost immediately. Who starts the fight is unknown. The only evidence for how it started is provided by Zimmerman who claims that he was sucker punched in the nose by Martin and stunned by the blow. The photographs of Zimmerman taken a few minutes after the confrontation confirm that his nose was smashed, knocked out of alignment and bleeding.
Since Martin died, how he ended up at the intersection of the paths remains a matter of speculation. But it appears that by an unfortunate twist of fate, the two arrived at the intersection at the same time and this sudden encounter led Martin to initiate an attack on Zimmerman. The testimony of Rachel Jeantel suggests that Martin may have been fearful that Zimmerman was going to sexually assault him. In her interview with Piers Morgan she seemed to be alluding to what is essentially "stranger danger", the term used by parents in warning their children to beware of people following them in automobiles.
Since Zimmerman is the only one who knows how the fight actually began, we cannot confirm Zimmerman's version of how it started. What we do know is that Martin quickly gained the upper hand and Zimmerman immediately began calling out for help. Several witnesses who heard the screams described them as someone screaming in fear for his life. Clearly, we know that it was Zimmerman calling for help since Jonathan Good went outside and saw Trayvon Martin on top straddling Zimmerman and raining blows towards Zimmerman's head. It would make no sense for the person who was delivering the beating to be crying out for help as if his life depended on it. So Martin from the beginning knew that Zimmerman wanted no part of the fight and that he was thoroughly beaten. Most telling is that when Jonathan Good yelled at him to cut it out, he ignored it and continued to beat Zimmerman who he held in a defenseless position. Of all the decisions that were made that night, the one that sealed his death was Martin's ignoring Good's demand to stop. At that point Zimmerman knew that nobody was going to help him and that Martin was not going to stop.
At the trial, the photos of the injuries to Zimmerman's head contrasted with the autopsy of Martin whose only observable injuries were the gunshot wound and some abrasions on one of his knuckles. Wet grass attached to the back of Zimmerman's jacket confirmed the eyewitness testimony of Jonathan Good that Zimmerman was the one lying on the ground. The testimony of forensics expert Vincent Di Maio, perhaps the world's leading expert on gunshot wounds, made it clear that the only reasonable explanation of the forensics around the gunshot wound was that Martin was leaning over a prone Zimmerman at the time Martin was shot.
While we can never be sure precisely what happened, the evidence suggests that Martin attacked Zimmerman by landing a blow to Zimmerman's nose, immediately gained the upper hand in the fight, and never received any blows in response until the gunshot wound that ended his life. Zimmerman clearly shot Martin in self-defense. The only question that was genuinely at issue in the trial was whether Zimmerman's fears at the time reasonably justified using a gun to defend himself.
Zimmerman did not testify at the trial but his narrative of events was presented in the form of police videos introduced by the prosecution. The police investigators testified that they felt Zimmerman was telling the truth and that the minor inconsistencies in his interviews were viewed as normal for witnesses trying to recall exact details of a past event. While the jury could have arrived at a not guilty verdict without Zimmerman's version of events, there was a good deal of evidence to support his credibility. From the beginning, Zimmerman waived his Miranda rights and voluntarily gave numerous statements to police without the protection of legal counsel. A voice stress test administered by the Sanford police showed that his answers to the questions,
"Did you confront the guy you shot? (No.)"
"Were you afraid for your life when you shot the guy? (Yes)",
were both consistent with his telling the truth. Zimmerman's account of the events was given before the police had collected evidence from potential witnesses and was not contradicted in any credible way by any of the subsequent witnesses. Perhaps most convincing of his credibility was his response of "Thank God" to the suggestion by Detective Serino that there was a video of the confrontation.
This was a tragic event. It is unlikely that Martin thought that Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch guy or some kind of security person. It is more likely that he suspected Zimmerman was a potential threat. Rachel Jeantel testified at the trial that Trayvon asked Zimmerman "what are you following me for?" and that Zimmerman responded "what are you doing around here?" I think this is unlikely because if this were the actual conversation, Trayvon would probably have said he was staying with his dad at Brandy Green's townhouse and that would have been the end of it. Far more likely is that Trayvon did not know what Zimmerman was up to and launched a pre-emptive attack. It is easy to fault both parties for irrational behavior but what makes this such a tragic event is that the actions of both were not irrational. After all, there had been numerous burglaries at Retreat Circle and Trayvon's movements legitimately aroused suspicions; and Martin had reason to be wary of Zimmerman since he had been following him in a car and Trayvon had no idea why. And the mutual suspicions of both Zimmerman and Martin were, if anything, enhanced by both Zimmerman's call to the dispatcher and Martin's phone conversation with Rachel Jeantel.
It is instructive to consider alternative scenarios in which events could have unfolded differently. Had Zimmerman not had a gun and had Trayvon continued to beat him, the police might have arrived soon enough to prevent Trayvon from inflicting great bodily harm to Zimmerman. Martin then would have been charged with aggravated assault. Martin's defense attorney would of course have argued that Martin acted in self-defense and assuming that Zimmerman's injuries did not get much worse, Martin would have been able to plea bargain to a lesser offense and gotten off with a couple of years of probation. On the other hand had Martin continued to pound Zimmerman, one of the blows to Zimmerman's head might have killed him in which case Martin would have been charged with second degree murder.
If the police had arrived on the scene a minute earlier and witnessed Martin on top of Zimmerman raining down blows and heard Zimmerman's cries for help, he certainly would have demanded that Martin stop. If he acceded to the demand, the police would have arrested him for assault. If he ignored the policeman's command he might have been shot.
With any of these alternative scenarios, it is clear that it would have been Martin facing criminal charges and the national press would never have covered the story.
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