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Saturday, July 27, 2013
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Enough time has gone by since the Zimmerman verdict (two weeks ago) for emotions to cool down a bit. During the trial I had studied the available evidence, and thus I agreed with the jury that the evidence did not support a “beyond a reasonable doubt” determination that Mr. Zimmerman had committed a high-level felony homicide or manslaughter offense against Trayvon Martin. In the most technical sense, the system of laws and legal procedures set up by centuries of British common law tradition and the United States Constitution worked as intended in this situation (as they did in the OJ Simpson criminal case way back in 1995).

But of course, most people interested in this case were NOT interested in the technical workings of the criminal justice system in Sanford, Florida. They wanted to get down to the big question: what the heck really happened on that fateful February night at the Twin Lakes condo complex in Sanford. We are living in a very politically divided and combative society today, and thus it is not surprising that two very different narratives have emerged regarding the fatal encounter between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman. Liberal politicians, pundits and media outlets joined with various African American leaders and commentators to tell a story of an unjust, racially motivated killing, one that repeats an ugly historical pattern of heinous assaults and homicides against innocent blacks by racist white people.

In contrast (quite an intentional contrast, given the charged political atmosphere), GOP and conservative elements emphasize a very different narrative, one that substitutes Mr. Zimmerman as a bumbling but well-intentioned victim of an assault by a muscular, aggressive, racially-aware and angry 17 year old. In this narrative, Mr. Zimmerman was unjustly attacked for fulfilling his duties as an officially sanctioned neighborhood watch leader, who was legitimately responding to the string of burglaries and robberies at the complex within recent months (where black youth about the age of Trayvon Martin were prime suspects). Fearing for his life because of the head injuries being imparted by Mr. Martin, Mr. Zimmerman’s fatal use of a firearm against Mr. Martin was thus entirely justified.

Again, in the technical legal sense, and given the checks and balances that our system intentionally imposes to prevent arbitrary government actions that could theoretically deprive the rights of its citizens (e.g. throwing you in jail for the rest of your life), the jury decision in this case was correct. And yet, on consideration of all the available facts about this incident and about the two people involved (including information that the jury was not legally allowed to consider in its decision), neither of these dueling narratives “smells right”. There has to be a MISSING LINK, a thus-far hidden factor that makes some sense of the whole mess.

George Zimmerman, despite his many faults, never acted like a white (or “white-Hispanic”) supremacist bent on murdering an African American kid that got out of line. His biography makes him out as someone mostly at peace about living in a multi-cultural world. The FBI report on the incident failed to find any significant evidence of racial animus in Mr. Zimmerman’s acts or character. I just can’t buy the argument that George Zimmerman went after Trayvon Martin on that fateful night with intent to kill him, mainly because he was black.

But at the same time, I can’t buy the idea that Trayvon Martin went up to Mr. Zimmerman while Zimmerman was trailing him, with the intent to either kill or cause physical injury. Sure, Mr. Martin had shown increasing tendencies in recent months towards violence (school fights with other teenagers), an interest in guns, and a growing taste for the racially-charged, anti-white sentiments expressed in modern hip-hop music. But a whole lot of late teenagers across America show similar interests and behaviors, and yet they somehow get through it and mature without doing any major damage to either themselves or those around them. A lot of these teenagers aren’t even black; a lot of white kids dig the “anti-white establishment” gansta message too. And yet, most of them eventually go on to college or otherwise settle into normal adult lives.

It makes no sense to me that Trayvon Martin, armed only with iced tea and Skittles and a bit of hooch smoke in his blood, intended to attack and violently injure Zimmerman that night. Yes, Martin certainly was angry and upset about being watched. As President Obama himself discussed, African American people still experience a lot of security prejudice, e.g. being followed in stores by overly nervous / racially suspicious owners or guards. I saw that myself at my own apartment complex many years ago, back when the place was owned by a white Italian immigrant who lived on the premises. If he observed an African American man on the property, he would immediately go up and ask why he was there; by contrast, this fellow didn’t do likewise for most white people, even if not familiar with them. I can imagine that it is not pleasant for the victims of such suspicion, that it creates very bad karma.

So sure, Trayvon Martin was angry at George Zimmerman for displaying such suspicion. The timeline shows that Martin intentionally walked around Mr. Zimmerman’s vehicle as Zimmerman sat in it, very possibly intending to intimidate Mr. Zimmerman somewhat; a not-surprising, cocky response from an angry teenager.

Then came the famous phone discussion between Zimmerman and the police dispatcher, where Mr. Zimmerman admitted to his on-going surveillance against Martin and implying his intent to continue with it; to which the dispatcher said “we don’t need you to do that”. With 20-20 hindsight, that statement was the voice of reason. (The dispatcher was Sean Noffke, who was born in New Jersey not that far from my home turf.) Too bad that it wasn’t stated more strongly, e.g. “stay in the truck until the police arrive at your location”. The dispatcher was probably aware that volunteer watchmen like Zimmerman were not adequately trained to deal with street confrontations. They do not have the classwork and mentoring that a professional policeman would (hopefully) have to properly deal with a potentially suspicious person at night.

Just for a moment, let’s go back to the Sgt. James Crowley / Henry Louis Gates incident back in July, 2009. Just imagine if it were George Zimmerman who had found Professor Gates and his driver trying to open a closed house door. Despite the unpleasantries exchanged between Crowley and Gates (culminating in Gates’ arrest), Crowley’s gun stayed in his holster, and everyone lived to attend the “Beer Summit” with the President. Had it been a poorly trained and overly zealous George Zimmerman on the porch that day, this might not have been the case.

Back to Sanford in February, 2012. Mr. Zimmerman disregarded the dispatcher’s sage advice, and proceeded on foot in the direction that Mr. Martin had gone after circling his truck. Between a row of apartment entrances, Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman meet face to face. Some evidence (e.g. Rachel Jeantel’s testimony) hints that Martin was close to the house he was staying in when he became aware that Mr. Zimmerman was out of his truck and not far behind him. He then decided to change direction and walk right up to Zimmerman. This evidence further implies that Martin then issued a verbal challenge to Mr. Zimmerman’s surveillance, akin to “why are you following me?”

At this point, things were getting a bit ugly, but neither party had done anything illegal or crossed any “red lines”. Mr. Zimmerman was doing his job, but in an insensitive, antagonistic fashion. Mr. Martin was justifiably angry about the racial implications of Mr. Zimmerman’s zealotry, and manifested teenage bravado by walking right up to him. This situation still could have been defused at this point, in my opinion. Mr. Zimmerman was not wearing any sort of identification as the complex’s officially approved watchman. Trayvon Martin likely did not known the context of Mr. Zimmerman’s acts, given his short time at the complex. He may well have thought that Zimmerman was simply a racist white guy trying to make life unpleasant for himself and others like him. Challenging a person in these circumstances to demand an explanation would not be unreasonable.

I honestly believe that this was the limit of Trayvon Martin’s intent at this point. I can’t imagine Martin deciding to physically attack Zimmerman based solely on his anger; and even if Zimmerman had responded with something inflammatory, I can’t imagine Mr. Martin “going over the line” simply based on words. Trayvon Martin knew know darn well that he wouldn’t get away with attacking a white man in the middle of an apartment complex, just a few doors from where he was staying. He knew that he would be arrested and spend time in prison for doing that; as a black teenager, he knew would have a very hard time getting off such a charge with just a slap on the wrist. No, something else pushed Martin over the edge that night; something else triggered the physical attack that led Zimmerman to use his weapon against Trayvon Martin.

What could that have been? Again, I don’t see George Zimmerman being inordinately aggressive with others (despite his zealotry for being like a “real cop”), especially against an obviously strong, tall teenager in his face. I don’t think he harbored enough racial animosity to translate into a desire to do violence against Martin. Profiling at a distance is one thing; hating face-to-face is a whole different matter. In fact, I think Zimmerman was more fearful than anything else.

In fulfillment of the police dispatcher’s prescient suspicion that Zimmerman would not properly handle a tough police situation, I believe that Zimmerman panicked at this point, and did something that no professional cop would do (remember Sgt. Crowley). Zimmerman pulled his gun out very early, way too early. This, I think, is the unspoken link to what happened that night. This is George Zimmerman’s secret, a material omission that fits in well with the other embellishments and half-truths that peppered Zimmerman’s account of the incident. Zimmerman and his lawyers know darn well that if he admitted to this, Trayvon Martin’s family would have an easy multi-million dollar lawsuit for wrongful death against both Zimmerman and the Twin Lakes housing complex.

Again, at this point, Mr. Zimmerman has a tall, muscular and angry young man in front of him. But they are very near to other people, i.e. on a row between apartment buildings with entrances and windows facing them. Mr. Martin obviously did not have any weapons to threaten Mr. Zimmerman with. He had a convenience store bag in his hand. Zimmerman had some reason for concern at this point, but was NOT immediately threatened. It would be obvious to anyone with professional training in crowd control that communication, not physical threat, was needed at this point. But Mr. Zimmerman did not have training and mentoring in handling real-life situations. He panicked, and thus moved too quickly to establish dominance by getting his gun ready. George Zimmerman may not have pointed the gun at Trayvon Martin yet; he might have just gotten it out of the holster and pointed it towards the ground. He only wanted to let Mr. Martin know that he had it, expecting Martin to reasonably tone down his anger and respect Zimmerman. Unfortunately, Mr. Zimmerman did NOT consider that Mr. Martin might instead do just what he was doing: PANIC, not THINK.

So it was now Trayvon Martin’s turn to panic, despite Mr. Zimmerman’s expectation that Martin would think it through and act reasonably. Trayvon had heard the story of racial killings or beatings of young blacks by white men, the narratives of Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, etc. He knew that it is too easy for whites to get away with this. But he’s not a real ‘gangsta’, he’s never been in a real gang shoot-out. He’s just as green to street conflict as Mr. Zimmerman is. So now it’s Mr. Martin turn to see his life flashing before him. If he runs, then boom-boom, a bullet in his back. So it seems best to confront the threat.

[But let’s keep it real here; no doubt Mr. Martin was aware of the famous white-on-black murders and assaults, largely because of the on-going efforts of black leadership to keep the memories of those terrible incidents fresh; but in general, the greatest threat to the lives of young black men today does not stem from racist white police or the Ku Klux Klan; it comes from Other. Young. Black. Men. As seen every day in Chicago and many other unfortunate places. Kudos to Juan Williams for pointing this out and generally being a voice of reason and reality in a hyper-polarized political climate. Too bad that he wasn’t politically correct enough for NPR.]

Thus, the only option in Trayvon Martin’s panicking brain at this point was to subdue Mr. Zimmerman with martial-arts style punches and head blows, as to give Mr. Martin time to get away. I doubt if Mr. Martin wanted to kill George Zimmerman, despite his anger and panic. He just wanted to get out of the situation alive. In the movies, video games and fighting sports that Mr. Martin enjoyed viewing, it always looks easy to hit someone hard and knock him out (temporarily). In reality, it’s not easy at all . . . as Mr. Martin learned in the final minutes of his life. Mr. Zimmerman was not knocked out quickly. And he already had that gun in his hand.

(This theory explains how Zimmerman was able to use the gun while being pummeled by Trayvon Martin; I disbelieve Mr. Zimmerman’s assertion that he reached under his hip while lying on the ground with Martin sitting on his stomach with Martin’s legs straddling his ribs, then pulled up his jacket and shirt, grabbed the gun and slipped it out, then fired successfully at Martin — all within 40 seconds after being punched hard in the nose, knocked to the ground, and pinned under a 170 pound teenager. The gun was tucked inside Zimmermans’ pants just above his right butt; admittedly, the holster didn’t have a sealed flap and the KelTec didn’t have a safety. Still, to carry out that maneuver while lying prone, you’d want to tilt your body (try it out); not easy with Travyon Martin sitting on your stomach, pounding your head, and harder still for people with stout body-types like Zimmerman. It may have been possible with some wriggling and squirming (and adrenaline pumping), but doesn’t seem likely within the timeline. No, that gun was in George Zimmerman’s hand BEFORE the first blow from Trayvon Martin . . another fellow who actually owns a gun agrees).

So, Trayvon’s emergency plan for ending the incident with everyone alive was also unsuccessful, ironically. Again, Martin was trying to knock Zimmerman out, not kill him. But Zimmerman didn’t know that; in panic, we assume the worst. The fight supposedly lasted about 40 seconds; the first 5 or 10 seconds would have been spent by Zimmerman in shock. Then for the next 20 or 30 seconds he tried one last tactic — screaming for help. Give him credit for making one last try before using the gun; even at this point he apparently doesn’t want to use it. But no help was forthcoming, and he was taking more head-blows from Martin (who stuck to his martial-arts knock-out plan and never went after the gun; in panic, we tend to stick to our plans even when not working).

Zimmerman then cocked his arm and fired the gun at Martin’s chest. Had Mr. Zimmerman been trained to stay cool, there would STILL have been a chance to end the incident non-fatally at this point. He could have shot the gun in the air near Martin’s ear, then knocked him over and bear-hugged him after Martin was stunned by the loud noise. The police were en route, all Zimmerman needed was to buy a minute or two. (Another thought — didn’t George Zimmerman have mace spray, as a real cop would?). But no, everyone was locked into panic. Fear was in the drivers seat, and death was the destination.

Would there have been different criminal implications if Zimmerman HAD in fact pulled his weapon early (which only Zimmerman will ever know, and will probably take to the grave with him)? Without direct evidence such as an eyewitness or video tape, it is irrelevant. If it could somehow have been established, a gun misuse charge (a lower degree felony) might have been justified. But again, without evidence surmounting the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold, the notion is legally irrelevant for criminal law (although it may well be discussed in a civil “wrongful death” action against Zimmerman, as I mentioned above).

Nonetheless, we must ask, what might be the practical lessons in terms of preventing future incidents like this one? (If only it were as simple as “end racism”; if only that were a simple task.) Obviously, communities and police must exert more control and take more responsibility over volunteer watchmen. Perhaps such volunteers should not be allowed to carry guns unless they have full police training and experience (non-fatal mace might be a substitute option — but only with proper training and practice regarding its use). Two, every volunteer (or paid) guard on duty should always wear visible identity, perhaps a badge and garments with security identity spelled out. Such volunteers, before being sanctioned by the local police and communities or housing complexes, need more training with regard to handling hostile encounters and responding with effective communication before responding with force. They also need more training and awareness regarding racial profiling in police work.

But perhaps most importantly, they need training on how NOT TO PANIC!!! PANIC is everyone’s ENEMY, as every good cop knows. George Zimmerman obviously was NOT a good cop, and was not ready for the responsibilities that he had assumed (both in terms of being the appointed neighborhood watch coordinator AND in terms of carrying a gun in public while executing his responsibilities). He was NOT ready for the actions that he committed himself to on that February evening, as the police dispatcher suspected. And unfortunately, Trayvon Martin had to die because of that. There may never be full justice for what happened at Twin Lakes, but if some relatively small changes are carried out because of it, lives may be saved in the future.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 12:33 am      

  1. Jim, I’d say you’ve about hit the nail on the head. There are a couple of points I might “argue” with in this piece, but they are so minor, I’m not going to bother. I will make some observations, though.

    Likely, you are correct; that Mr. Zimmerman pulled his gun much too soon. In fact, from what I’ve heard and read he has had a history of liking to “play cop” as evidenced by various courses he’s taken and by his attempts, that were unsuccessful, to become a member of the police; thus, as you say, he lacked proper police training.

    There is another point you do not mention, the “stand your ground law”. From what I read in Wikipedia (that bastion of truth and knowledge, but in this case it seems to have some good information; so I’m going with it): The “stand your ground” law is, to say the least, complex, vague, and seriously lacking in the precision laws should have.

    [COMMENT: again, the SYG laws, which nonetheless deserve to be debated, were not used by George Zimmerman in this case. On the prosecution side, my “drew too early in panic” theory was never put forth or considered by the judge and jury, because the Florida State Attorney concentrated on the hate-inspired homicide narrative. As I discussed, a lesser charge based on fatal misuse of a deadly weapon might not have been supported because of insufficient evidence; but we will never know for sure because of political pressures on the State to concentrate on the hate narrative.]

    One thing that caught my attention regarding the “stand your ground” law is that it is unclear whether it refers to one’s own home or vehicle or whether it refers to the “location” one happens to be, which to my way of thinking makes for a completely nonsensical law. According to that interpretation, anywhere one stands then is a “stand your ground” place, allowing for self-defense.

    Furthermore, unless I’m reading wrong or not thoroughly enough, I was not able, on cursory examination, to come up with a clear exposition of the “stand your ground” law in Florida – which to me indicates that there must be something lacking in that particular law in that particular state.

    Most precisely, what is lacking is what is mentioned in the article in Wikipedia, that, most of the time when someone claims shooting in self-defense, the only person left to refute that claim is the deceased.

    It would seem to me that if someone claims “self-defense”, there should be some physical evidence of a need for “self-defense”; e.g, the trajectory of the bullet or (in cases where there may be more than one firearm) which bullet was fired first, etc. I certainly do *not* think that “evidence” is what the defendant *says* he/she did – as seems to be the case with Mr. Zimmerman. In hindsight when someone has done something that he/she normally would consider against what one’s inclinations would normally be, the person is only too likely to either lie outright or “fudge” the truth, and believe that “fudged” truth, only to realize later in life that one actually did do the wrong thing – or as you say, take the truth to the grave with him/her.

    One last observation on my part: It seems to me that our legal system is seriously lacking in administering justice. I do not know if this is a more recent situation or has always been the case; but I see more and more injustice in what the legal system hands down to individuals. Maybe it’s a part of where I live. Chicago has had the Innocence Project” (to say nothing of the infamous policeman, Mr. Burge, who tortured individuals, mostly Black men, to confess to crimes they did not commit, the opposite of the Innocence Project) now for quite some time, and has proved many individuals on death row and in jail for life innocent and convicted wrongly. These people have spent 20 years, and often more years, in prison. The legal system may have “worked”; but there was no justice. The actual criminals still roam and have literally gotten away with murder.

    The legal system that is supposed to administer justice seems to have somehow gone astray – and the “stand your ground” laws in the various states are not helping the situation. I find myself wondering if these laws are arising because of the fact that the white population (and as a tangent to mentioning the white population in general, the NRA is peopled, for the most part, by whites with a few token blacks) is afraid that it is becoming a minority for the first time in the 230+ years we’ve been a country.

    I readily admit this is not a well-constructed piece of writing. Nevertheless, these are the tangential observations that come to mind on reading your very cogent piece. MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 27, 2013 @ 2:55 pm

  2. Jim, On the issue of my tangent from the above, I’d like to add another point that occurs to me, something vital “missing” from the stand your ground laws is just he point you mention – exactly *when* a person should draw his/her gun under the stand your ground law.

    It seems to me that if I can think of these few things missing in the stand your ground laws, what else is missing that careful lawyers would find.

    These laws seem profoundly flawed as I understand them; I admit I’m no lawyer, but I also know I am able to understand intricacies of the law when they are explained to me. These laws seem to be rampant with vagueness and should be either “fixed” appropirately or withdrawn completely from states’ constitutions. MCS

    Comment by Mary — July 28, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

  3. I read this twice, Jim. Very well thought out and extrapolated indeed. I am not American, so I should not comment too much here, but just one ‘hanging-in-mid-air’ observation. I know that there really is no simple solution to a multi-dimensional, highly complex social problem that appears to be escalating, but I often wonder, as an outsider, grown up in Asia, lived in the UK and now in Australia, about the unusual freedom to buy and use guns in America. The arguments for and against are abundant and complicated, so I will not make a moral judgement, but from your analysis, in this particular situation, I do wonder… A brain worm wriggles its way out of the can here, I cannot help but be reminded of the slogan that I too often see on Facebook postings by my pro-gun American friends (which I have by now hidden from my own view because they confuse me): The Only Way to Stop a Bad Guy with a Gun is a Good Guy with a Gun. And the worm wriggles some more in the reverberating silence. A great tragedy, regardless.

    Comment by bunnyhopscotch — August 2, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

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