[Update 4] Trayvon Martin: The Three-Week Old Story, Politics and Florida’s Right-To-Kill Law

Update: 3:17 pm Pacific
In this ABC News Video, at about 2:40 the reporter states that Trayvon Martin made a 9-1-1 call just before his death and the call captures Zimmerman’s voice in the background. This allegation has not been corroborated by any other media. [Tip to Educator @Anti_Intellect]

Trayvon Martin

Travyon Martin, Via Facebook

When I read Newt Gingrich’s comments about Trayvon Martin this morning, I was incensed. And not just because of what he said. I was angry because suddenly (yes, suddenly) the nation’s political opportunists (yes, Mr. President, I mean you, too) have decided that they need to go on the record about this tragedy.

I’ve been following this story, silently, for quite a while because of the racism it seems to represent, because I’m Southern and because of the “Easy Rider” approach to fear/vengeance/law and order that it reflects. For those of you not around then, Easy Rider (released in 1969) depicted southern small-mindedness. The protagonists (white “hippie” motorcyclists) are murdered by a (white) hillbilly while en route to Florida. Here, a black teen was shot and killed by a white (“Spanish-speaking minority“) man.

I’ve also followed this story because of what it says about Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which extended the right to self-defense from being in your home to anyplace you have a legal right to be. According to a news investigation, the number of “justificable” homicides in Florida has tripled since the law’s passage in 2005.

Think about this for a moment. A guy who has 100 pounds on you steps out of his SUV, maybe brandishing a gun, maybe not, and demands to know why you are in his neighborhood. What are you, unarmed, going to do? Attack him? Doubtful. But if he gets in your face and pushes you on the shoulder, would you push back? I think I would. So now there’s a fight – one that I did not start – but the mere fact that there is a fight is enough to exonerate the guy who shoots me?

Update 2, 3:59 pm Pacific:
On a tape of one of Zimmerman’s 911 calls the night of the shooting, he is heard saying under his breath what sounds like “f**ing coons.” Seconds later he confronted Martin and after a brief scuffle shot him dead. (Audio – listen closely, it’s there.)

Finally, I’ve followed this story because before the advent of the Internet, Facebook and Twitter, independent blogs and online petitions … this story would have been unlikely to reach a national audience. The odds that there would have been a federal grand jury? Slim. In many ways, it reminds me of Genarlow Wilson, “an honors student jailed for 10 years because of a poorly written Georgia law, a zealous prosecutor, and an impotent governmental system.”

Why does it seem that a national platform is needed to in order to render local justice?

Update 4a: 12:25 am Sunday
In the LA Times columnist Sandy Banks quotes her daughter: “It’s not about race anymore,” she told me when I asked why so many people seem to have made Trayvon a martyr. “This is about justice. A crazy man who shot a kid who wasn’t bothering anyone.”

Not only are our politicians now getting into the act, so are the national media pundits and a roster of celebrities from music and film. Perhaps Trayvon will serve as America’s 21st Century Nada [1], personifying the perilous life of teen black men in America and illustrating the rise in hate groups and hate crime.

Even though I cannot understand why no arrest was made, based on the evidence presented in the press, I realize that in a criminal investigation that not all evidence is disclosed to the media.

I’m concerned, however, that the case will never go to trial due to an inability to find a neutral jury, due to Florida’s gun-friendly get-out-of-jail-free law dubbed the “Stand Your Ground” law or due to witnesses giving their statements not to the police but to reporters.

I am also concerned about Internet vigilante justice: more than 1.7 million people have signed an online petition urging that the Zimmerman be prosecuted. His family, and the police chief, have received death threats.

I encourage you to read on, although this is a very long, two-part article. I hope to correct some errors from early reporting and, perhaps, dispel some myths along the way. The cited news reports are in no way intended to be complete.

The Unnoted Back Story

George Zimmerman (28, age first reported as 26) gunned down Trayvon Martin (17) the evening of Sunday, February 26, 2012 in a gated neighborhood (The Retreat at Twin Lakes) located in Sanford, FL, a suburb of Orlando.

Sanford (population 53,000) is the county seat of Seminole County (population 422,000); the Orlando SMA has a population of 2.1 million. According to the U.S. Census, Sanford is 57.3% Caucasian/Hispanic and 45.0% non-Caucasian/Hispanic. It is 30.5% Black, 20.2% Latino/Hispanic. In other words, dark-skinned youth are not a rarity.

Moreover, this neighborhood probably doesn’t match the picture in your mind when you hear or read “gated community.” It’s comprised of modest (less than 1,500 square feet) two-story townhomes with one-car garages with current selling prices of around $100,000. Oh. And like Sanford itself, it’s a mixed-race community.

What do we know about this case?

  1. Martin was walking back to his father’s home from a neighborhood convenience store, where he had purchased Skittles and a can of iced tea. He made the trip in a drizzle before an NBA All-Star game was set to start in Orlando.
  2. Zimmerman made a “non-emergency” 9-1-1- call (audio) and reported a suspicious person in the neighborhood. He was explicitly told (per the 9-1-1 transcript and Police Chief Bill Lee) not to follow Martin. He had attended a community neighborhood watch program in September that contained “a slide about not being vigilante police.” Transcript of the 9-1-1 call provided by Mother Jones.
  3. Martin, talking on his cellphone as he returned home, told his 16-year-old girlfriend that a man had been watching him. The phone logs show that the call occurred five minutes before the police arrived on the scene.
  4. Zimmerman disobeyed the directive from the police dispatcher not to follow Martin. Zimmerman confronted shot Martin with a 9mm handgun (he had a license to carry) and later claimed that he shot the unarmed teen in self-defense.
  5. The police found “Martin’s body lying face down on the grass about 70 yards from the family’s home.” [How do you fall face forward when shot in the chest?]
  6. The Sanford Police Department did not test Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol, although this is standard procedure in a homicide.
  7. Zimmerman is a college student reportedly studying criminal justice who wants to be a police officer. He regularly calls 9-1-1 (46 times since January 1, 2011); this audio (via WKMG Orlando) illustrates his pattern of 9-1-1 calls.
  8. The Sanford Police Department accepted Zimmerman’s story that he had no arrest record. However, in 2005 (he would have been 18 or 19 21) “Zimmerman was charged with battery against an officer and resisting arrest.” He assaulted “a law-enforcement officer and resist[ed] arrest with violence” outside a bar. But because the charges were dropped and his arrest was expunged, Zimmerman was eligible for the concealed carry permit.

    Update 3: Also in 2005, Zimmerman’s ex-fiancée filed a petition accusing Zimmerman of pushing her during an argument at her Orlando home. He filed a claim the next day saying that “she did it.” [Does this sound familiar?]

  9. Martin attended North Miami’s Krop High School, where he had no record of arrest or disciplinary action for violence. He was serving a one-week suspension “due to tardiness and not misbehavior.”
  10. “When the homeowners association wanted to start a neighborhood watch, only one man stepped up: George Zimmerman…” Zimmerman is not part of a nationally registered neighborhood watch group; there are 22,000 registered groups. Neighborhood watch groups are supposed to report incidents, not try to enforce law.
  11. Zimmerman has not been charged. On March 19, the Florida State Attorney General announced that a federal grand jury investigation would being on April 10.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law (2005) makes it legal to use deadly force if you believe you are in imminent danger. Zimmerman claimed that “the confrontation was initiated by Trayvon.” Zimmerman was in a car; Martin was walking. Zimmerman had a gun and weighs 250 pounds; Martin did not have a gun and was 6-foot, 3-inches tall and weighed 140 pounds.

Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest. Police Chief Bill Lee said, ““Zimmerman had injuries consistent with his story.”

Update 4b: 12:25 am Sunday
The prime sponsor of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law says Trayvon Martin’s alleged attacker not covered under law I wrote… Mr. Zimmerman’s unnecessary pursuit and confrontation of Trayvon Martin elevated the prospect of a violent episode and does not seem to be an act of self-defense as defined by the castle doctrine. There is no protection in the “Stand Your Ground” law for anyone who pursues and confronts people.

From the Yale Daily News:

As Martin walked down the street, talking to his girlfriend on the phone and keeping to himself, how did he pose a threat to Zimmerman? Zimmerman actively pursued Martin, getting out of his car to confront him while in possession of a handgun, thus calling into question the classification of this case as one of self-defense.

Moreover, neighborhood watch members are encouraged not to carry:

[Chris Tutko, director of the Neighborhood Watch program at the National Sheriffs' Association, which launched the neighborhood watch concept 40 years ago as a response to rising crime] said he was flabbergasted to learn about a watch captain’s shooting of the 17-year-old Martin last month in Sanford, Fla.
[...]
Tutko said it’s highly unusual, and highly discouraged, for a neighborhood watch to be armed.

“You do not carry a weapon during neighborhood watch,” he said flatly. “If you carry a weapon, you’re going to pull it.”

To corroborate Tutko’s assessment, we are learning that “The mere act of holding a gun makes it more likely that you will perceive an object as a gun,” according to James Brockmole, associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and co-author of an upcoming paper on that phenomenon.

Part 2: How The Trayvon Martin Case Unfolded

[1] Unfortunately, the 20th century had a symbol, too. It’s almost 60 years later and how much progress have we made?

“Trayvon is the Emmitt Till of our generation,” said event co-chair Chris Sullivan. He’s referring to the Mississippi 14-year-old who was beaten to death in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.