Getting the Facts Straight in the Zimmerman Case

As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan reportedly said, "[e]veryone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts."  The commentary on the George Zimmerman case, I've noticed, gets edgy when those who know the facts argue with those who venture opinions.  The facts that follow are the ones with which both the defense and the prosecutor must contend.

Late Sunday night, February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman sat down in front of Sanford Police Department (SPD) detectives and wrote out in longhand his own account of the shocking incident that had just left him rattled and bloody.  Zimmerman, who writes well, began with some useful background information: in August 2011, his neighbor's house had been broken into while she was home with her infant son.  The neighbor barricaded herself and her child in a bedroom and called 911.

The SPD quickly responded, and the intruders fled.  Zimmerman's wife Shellie saw them fleeing and "became scared of the rising crime."  Zimmerman promised that he would do what he could to keep her safe.  One result was that he and some of his neighbors at the Retreat at Twin Lakes formed a Neighborhood Watch Program.

Although technically "a gated community," the Retreat imploded after the Florida real estate bubble burst.  By 2012, townhouses were selling for less than $100,000, fifteen percent were vacant, more than half were being rented, and fewer than half of the residents were white.

Trayvon Martin had been staying with his father's girlfriend, Brandy Green, who rented one of the units.  Martin had gone to a neighborhood 7-11 that evening and left the store at 6:29.  Zimmerman spotted him near a shortcut entrance to the Retreat about 7:05.  The 7-11 is about a 10-minute walk from that spot.  Do the math.

At 7:09:34, after spotting Martin, Zimmerman called the non-emergency number the SPD had given him.  He described "a male approximately 5' 11" to 6' 2" casually walking in the rain and looking into homes."

SPD: Sanford Police Department, (garbled) recording, this is Shawn.

GZ: Hey, we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there's a real suspicious guy, uh [near] 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]

SPD: Okay, and this guy, is he white, black, or Hispanic?

GZ: He looks black.

SPD: Did you see what he was wearing?

GZ: Yeah, a dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie, and either jeans or sweat pants and white tennis shoes. He's here now. He's just staring. [00:43]

SPD: Okay, he's just walking around the area...

GZ: ...looking at all the houses.

SPD: Okay...

GZ: Now he's staring at me. [00:48]

SPD: Okay, you said that's 1111 Retreat View or 111?

GZ: That's the clubhouse.

SPD: That's the clubhouse. Do you know what the...he's near the clubhouse right now?

GZ: Yeah, now he's coming toward me.

SPD: Okay.

GZ: He's got his hands in his waistband. And he's a black male. [1:09]

SPD: How old would you say he looks?

GZ: He's got a button on his shirt, late teens.

SPD: Late teens, okay.

GZ: 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. [01:26]

SPD: Let me know if he does anything, okay?

GZ: (anxiously) See if you can get an officer over here.

SPD: Yeah, we've got someone on the way. Just let me know if this guy does anything else.

GZ: Okay. These a**holes. They always get away.

At this point, it sounds as if Zimmerman is getting out of the truck, but not yet moving.

GZ: When you come to the clubhouse, you come straight in and you go left. Actually, you would go past the clubhouse. [1:53]

SPD: Okay, so it's on the left hand side from the clubhouse?

GZ: Nah, you go in straight through the entrance and then you would go left. You go straight in, don't turn, and make a left. Sh**, he's running. [2:08]

Trayvon Martin headed east along an east-west sidewalk cut-through between the two streets, Twin Trees, where Zimmerman was parked, and Retreat View.  He then turned south on a sidewalk that intersects the cut-through and runs between the backs of the buildings on either street.  The townhouse where he had been staying was less than 400 feet down that sidewalk.

SPD: He's running? Which way is he running?

GZ: Down toward the other entrance of the neighborhood. [2:14]

SPD: OK, which entrance is that he's headed towards?

Zimmerman could see the direction Martin took but could no longer "maintain a visual" from the truck.  Ambient wind sounds suggest he started walking swiftly, likely in the same direction Martin was running.

GZ: The back entrance.  It's f***ing cold (garbled, much disputed).

The dispatcher obviously heard the wind sounds.

SPD: Are you following him? [2:24]

GZ: Yeah.

SPD: Okay. We don't need you to do that. [2:26]

GZ: Okay.

SPD: All right, sir, what is your name? [2:34]

GZ: George. He ran.

At this point, Zimmerman's breathing relaxed, and the sound of wind abated.

SPD: All right, George, what's your last name?

GZ: Zimmerman.

SPD: And George, what's the phone number you're calling from?

GZ: 407-435-2400.

SPD: All right, George, we do have them on the way. Do you want to meet with the officer when they get out there?

GZ: Yeah.

SPD: All right, where are you going to meet with them at?

GZ: Um, if they come in through the gate, tell them to go straight past the clubhouse and, uh, straight past the clubhouse and make a left and then they go past the mailboxes they'll see my truck. [3:10]

SPD: All right, what address are you parked in front of? [3:21]

GZ: Um, I don't know. It's a cut-through so I don't know the address. [3:25]

SPD: Okay, do you live in the area?

GZ: Yeah, yeah, I live here.

SPD: Okay, what's your apartment number?

GZ: It's a home. It's 1950 -- oh, crap, I don't want to give it out -- I don't know where this kid is (inaudible). [3:40]

SPD: Okay, do you just want to meet with them at the mailboxes, then? [3:42]

GZ: Yeah, that's fine. [3:43]

SPD: All right, George, I'll let them know you'll meet them at...

GZ: Could you have them call me and I'll tell them where I'm at? [3:51]

SPD: Okay, that's no problem.

GZ: My've got it?

SPD: Yeah, I've got it. 407-435-2400?

GZ: Yeah, you got it.

SPD: Okay, no problem. I'll let them know to call you when they're in the area. [4:02]

GZ: Thanks.

SPD: You're welcome.

The call ended four minutes and change after it started at 7:13:39.  Zimmerman picked up the written narrative: "The dispatcher told me not to follow the suspect & that an officer was on the way. As I headed back to my vehicle the suspect emerged from the darkness and said, 'You got a problem?'" When Zimmerman answered "No," the suspect said, "You do now."

As I looked and tried to find my phone to dial 911 the suspect punched me in the face. I fell backwards onto my back. The suspect got on top of me. I yelled "Help" several times. The suspect told me, "Shut the f*** up." As I tried to sit upright, the suspect grabbed my head and slammed it into the concrete sidewalk several times. I continued to yell "Help." Each time I attempted to sit up, the suspect slammed my head into the sidewalk. My head felt like it was going to explode. I tried to slide out from under the suspect and continue to yell "Help."

Heard in the background of the 911 call from Witness #11 was a man desperately yelling "help" over and over again for about forty-two seconds. The call started at 7:16:11, about two and a half minutes after Zimmerman ended his call with SPD.

As I slid the suspect covered my mouth and nose and stopped my breathing. At this point I felt the suspect reach for my now exposed firearm and say, "Your [sic] gonna die tonight Mother F***er." I unholstered my firearm in fear for my life as he had assured me he was going to kill me and I fired one shot into his torso. The suspect sat back allowing me to sit up and said "You got me."

The screams ended abruptly with a single gunshot at 7:16:59. Zimmerman's narrative continues.

At this point I slid out from underneath him and got on top of the suspect holding his hands away from his body. An onlooker appeared and asked me if I was ok. I said "No." He said "I am calling 911." I said "I don't need you to call 911. I already called them. I need you to help me restrain this guy." At this point a SPD officer arrived and asked "Who shot him." I said I did and placed my hands on top of my head and told the officer where on my persons (sic) my firearm was holstered. The officer handcuffed me and disarmed me. The officer then placed me in the pack of his vehicle.

Zimmerman's own account ended here. Officer Timothy Smith arrived less than a minute after the shooting at 7:17:40 p.m. and reported finding Zimmerman standing near Martin, who was lying face down in the grass about 40 or so feet south of the intersection between the east-west cut through and the north-south walkway, roughly 100 yards from Green's townhouse. Smith noted that Zimmerman's back was wet and covered with grass and that he was bleeding from the nose and the back of his head.

As Smith would tell the State Attorney's Office, Zimmerman volunteered that he had shot Martin.  "I was yelling for help but no one would help me," he told Smith and complained that his head was hurting.  The officer handcuffed Zimmerman "for safety reasons."  Officer Jordan Broderick arrived shortly afterwards and saw "that the back of Zimmerman's head was cut and he was bloodied."

Officer Jonathan Mead also saw Zimmerman in custody and "noted his injured nose and bleeding head."  As Mead told the state attorney's office in April 2012, he had "dealt with Zimmerman before at the complex when Zimmerman had found open doors and houses. Zimmerman had reported suspicious persons that he had lost sight of when they (the suspicious person) went around a building. Zimmerman had been on foot when [he] met him on prior occasions."

Officer Richard Ayala arrived at the scene soon after Smith. When Ayala got there, Smith had Zimmerman at gunpoint, so Ayala tended to Martin, who was then lying face-down with his hands under his body.  Ayala rolled Martin over and "felt a large cold can in the center pocket."  Martin had $40 and change in his pants pockets as well as "one (1) red '711' brand name lighter, photo button, Skittles, and headphones."

When Ayala and a fellow officer attempted CPR and other first aid, the can came loose and was misidentified as an "Arizona brand name tea can."  (It was actually an Arizona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail.)  The officers located Martin's cell phone in the grass away from the body.

Officer Smith drove Zimmerman to the SPD station.  Before leaving, Smith had asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital.  Zimmerman declined.  On the way to the police station, though, Zimmerman complained "that his head hurt and he felt a little light headed."  Asked once again if he wanted to go to the hospital, Zimmerman hesitated and then declined.

Once at the station, Smith took Zimmerman to the interview room and kept an eye on him for health reasons.  Soon after, the SPD fingerprinted him, removed his clothes as evidence, conducted forensic tests on his hands for gunpowder residue, and kept his handgun to be examined.  The police then questioned him at length.  The session began at 8:15 p.m. Sunday and ended more than five hours later.

An hour after the shooting, Witness #6 told the SPD that he saw a "black man in a black hoodie on top of either a white guy...or an Hispanic guy in a red sweater on the ground yelling out help."  According to #6, the black man on top was "throwing down blows on the guy MMA [mixed martial arts] style."  Witness #13 waited until the fighting ended, went outside, and saw Zimmerman walking towards him.  "Am I bleeding?" Zimmerman asked.  Witness #13 answered affirmatively.  He also noticed "blood on the back of his head" and took a picture of it.

According to Witness #8, the girl with whom Martin had been speaking on the phone during this sequence, Martin "attempted to run home."  By "home" she meant the townhouse where Martin was staying.

In its probable cause affidavit accusing Zimmerman of murder in the second degree, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey cited Witness #8 and echoed her claim that "Martin attempted to run home but was followed by Zimmerman."  According to the affidavit, Zimmerman then "disregarded" the SPD, "continued to follow Martin who was trying to return to his home," and "confronted" him.

At the time, Zimmerman was four inches shorter and fifty pounds heavier than Martin.  He also gave Martin at the very least a twenty-second head start to a destination no more than twenty seconds away.  In fact, however, by the time Zimmerman's call with the SPD ended, Martin had had a leisurely two minutes to run the 400 feet to Green's townhouse.

The challenge for the prosecutors is to prove that despite the obvious handicaps, Zimmerman managed to catch a fleeing Martin, confront him, and somehow scare him into yelling "help" during the forty-two seconds he was pummeling Zimmerman MMA-style.

Bottom line: Judge Debra Nelson will have to work very hard to keep Angela Corey from being coupled forever in the public's memory with Mike Nifong.

An illustrated map:

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