Thursday, March 22, 2012

Regarding the shooting of Trayvon Martin

Here's what we know:

Zimmerman told the police he was in his truck, stepped out of it to check the name of the street he was on, and then Tayvon Martin jumped him from behind. Zimmerman had to defend himself, so he shot the 17 year old.

The 911 tapes tell a different story: Zimmerman saw Martin, saw Martin begin to run from him, and he got out of his truck in pursuit. When he caught up with Martin, he shot him. "What happened" is clear from what Zimmerman told police.

A friend of Martin's was on the phone with him as he noticed Zimmerman, and as he walked quickly (he told his friend he wouldn't run) away from Zimmerman, who pursued him. She heard Martin ask "Why are you following me?" and heard Zimmerman (presumably) say: "What are you doing around here?" Almost immediately after that, Martin was shot and killed.

The police didn't bother to check Martin's cell phone for recent calls, or to notice he was on the phone as he was shot (making the person on the other end of that call a potential witness). They took Zimmerman's story at face value even though it contradicts the 911 tapes.

To sum up: for Zimmerman's story to be true, he had to get out of the truck to tell the 911 operator the name of the street he was on, get back in his truck, get out again to pursue Martin, who somehow at that point vanished from running down the street away from Zimmerman, and appeared behind him, threatening Zimmerman so that he had to shoot to defend himself.

The Dept. of Justice has noted it must have evidence of intent in order to pursue federal charges; that negligence (such as the gun going off in a struggle, without Zimmerman intending to fire) cannot be charged under federal law. But Zimmerman's statement to the police is that he intended to fire. If Zimmerman changes his story now in order to evade federal prosecution (such as saying the shooting was accidental), he loses all credibility (not that he should have any, in light of the evidence that contradicts his statement to the police).

And the authors of the so-called "stand your ground law" argue it doesn't protect Zimmerman from a situation he placed himself in. However, Jeffrey Bellin's analysis of the requirements of the law in Florida points out raising the defense puts a burden on the prosecution: to disprove the defense.

Critical to this determination will be evidence reflecting: how the confrontation began and how the suspect acted after the confrontation (prosecutors often look for actions such as flight or a cover-up that indicate a "consciousness of guilt"). Perhaps most critically, investigators will compare all the evidence (physical and otherwise) with the suspect's statement (if any) about what happened.
Which, I think, is where the evidence known so far gets Zimmerman in trouble. His statement to police contradicts the 911 phone call he made; and the statements of Martin's girlfriend contradict Zimmerman's statement, too. The evidence of the phone calls indicate who started the confrontation, and who escalated it, and that Zimmerman decided, after he'd fired, to claim self-defense.

There is also the absolutely grotesque dereliction of duty evident in the Sanford Police Department's handling of the case. Trayvon Martin was treated as a John Doe, despite the fact he had a cell phone which could have been investigated for information (the family brought out the story of Trayvon's girlfriend, not the police). Trayvon was tested for drugs and his criminal background checked, not Zimmerman's.

And in all of this, the family has called consistently for one thing: the arrest of George Zimmerman. Not his conviction, or even his execution: simply his arrest. Which says a lot about the nature of the Martin family, but also a lot about race in America. The City Manager of Sanford, Florida was on Lawrence O'Donnell's show last night, and while he admitted the Police Chief of Sanford serves at the pleasure of the City Manager, he refused to consider firing Bill Lee without a full investigation: in other words, not until sometime in the far future. Which sounds reasonable, in one sense; in another, it indicates the politics of this town in Florida. Even City Managers have to take politics into account, and right now George Zimmerman is seen as white (he claims Hispanic), and Trayvon Martin is a dead black boy in a hoodie. A white family would be demanding rough justice; a black family knows all they can demand, is justice.

They are right to ask for no more than that. But they also understand society entitles them to no more than that. A white family might well consider they are entitled to vengeance. The arguments for the "stand your ground" law in Florida were based on that sense of entitlement: you have to defend yourself in a situation of threat. The problem is, of course, what constitutes a "threat;" and also, who is threatened. If Trayvon Martin had also had a gun, and ended up shooting George Zimmerman, does anyone really think he'd be free right now because of "self-defense"?


  1. Billy B8:43 AM

    Good post. You hit on all the salient points. The whole thing is a tragic farce, from the fact Zimmerman even had a license to carry a gun given his violent past, and on and on.

  2. Another irony is that, given this incident, what African-American in this community can now be said to be without reasonable apprehension if approached by a white stranger at night, and thus entitled to shoot first, ask questions later? The law thus creates the apprehension that justifies further violence.

    Having never worked in criminal law, I'm curious: Who normally has the burden of proof on self-defense? Is it the accused's burden? Or does the State normally have to negate it beyond a reasonable doubt?

  3. Rick--I understand this statute creates a positive defense the prosecution must overcome beyond a reasonable doubt. Does that mean the defense must put on evidence of the claim, or simply raise it? I don't know, though I'm fairly sure under the common law claim, the defense had some burden of proof.

    Then again, I could be wrong.

    And clearly the law creates the apprehension that justifies further violence, but since the original apprehension was violence by blacks/brown against whites (it was clearly the only kind imagined), this was only seen as "balancing the scales."

    Now that it is shown to clearly unbalance those scales, will the apprehension change?

  4. Anonymous9:53 PM

    It seems to me the only person who was threatened was the one being followed - Trayvon. He's the one who stood his ground. Florida law protects the person being threatened, not the one doing the threatening (Zimmerman).

  5. Florida law protects the person being threatened, not the one doing the threatening (Zimmerman).

    In theory; in application, it protects the person with the gun. Especially if that person is not black.

    Had Zimmerman run Martin down with a car, there would be no question of "self defense."

  6. Anonymous8:08 AM

    HMMMM....from what is being posted everywhere else is that Zimmerman lost sight of Martin and returned to his truck. Zimmerman was then approached by Martin for the rear left.

    Martin said "You got a problem?"

    Zimmerman "No."

    Martin "Well you do now!"

    Followed by Martin beating on Zimmerman. Which is collaborated by two witnesses.

  7. HMMMM....from what is being posted everywhere else is that Zimmerman lost sight of Martin and returned to his truck. Zimmerman was then approached by Martin for the rear left.

    That's one story. There are several more, all contradictory to each other.

    My favorite is the father's, where Zimmerman frees his gun from its holster (while Trayvon, at half Zimmerman's weight, holds him down and beats on him; and would be sitting on the gun at the time, pinning Zimmerman's arms with his knees. So, what, Zimmerman has a third arm?) and shoots Trayvon, who says "You got me!" as he falls.

    Couldn't have written the scene better if I'd tried.

    Zimmerman told the police one story (in the police report). The lead investigator didn't believe it. Joe Oliver told a different story. Robert Zimmerman (the father) tells a third story.

    Which of these is true?

    Oh, and there are no witnesses to the fight except a 13 year old boy, who only saw two people on the ground. It was too dark to see who was who, and then his dog ran away, and he had to chase it. He heard the gunshot, but he doesn't know what happened.

  8. Anonymous11:51 PM

    Actually in the 911 call he only mentions seeing one person on the ground. He doesn't not say however if the person was black or not.

  9. Another witness has come forward, says he saw two people in a struggle, then heard a shot, and one person got up.

    Still too dark to see, but then the second person came towards the witness, and it was Zimmerman. Which is rather obvious anyway, since he had the gun and wasn't shot.

    There's no collaboration of any of Zimmerman's many stories, and no way to verify them. For example, the story that Martin attacked Zimmerman at his truck.

    Then how did they end up several yards from the truck, behind the townhouses, in the middle of the "alley", where Martin's body was found and where the fight was seen? Martin punched Zimmerman, then ran? Funny, that's not the story Zimmerman was telling.

    But maybe it is now.....

  10. Anonymous10:47 PM

    I wonder if the gated community has surveillence cameras...they wouldn't lie.