George Zimmerman: Facts
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
So said President Obama in response to the tragic death of an unarmed African American teenager at the hand of a neighborhood watch patrolman. Trayvon Martin’s death has ignited discussion with a new perspective on racial profiling and gun laws after the man who killed him was not arrested. Communities across the country have responded in solidarity with a “Million Hoodie March,” a nod to the hoodie Trayvon was wearing when he was shot.
The Murder of Trayvon Martin
17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was walking through the Sanford, Florida gated community where he was visiting a friend of his father’s on the night of February 26, 2012. He was returning home from a trip to the convenience store, where he had picked up an iced tea and Skittles candy. He was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone as he weaved through the neighborhood.
George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Hispanic man, was the neighborhood’s self-appointed volunteer watch patrolman. He was driving around the community that night when he saw Trayvon. He thought Trayvon’s slow pace and the hoodie sweatshirt pulled over his head was “suspicious,” so he followed the boy in his car.
Trayvon told his girlfriend that someone was following him and making him nervous. She told him to run home; he said he would walk faster. Eventually he began running from Zimmerman who would not leave him alone.
Zimmerman was also on his cell phone with the 911 dispatcher. He reported that a suspicious, young black man wearing a dark-colored hoodie and holding something in his hands was prowling the neighborhood. The 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman that following the teenager around was unnecessary and that they would send the police department to check it out.
But Zimmerman kept following Trayvon until he cornered the boy. According to statements from both Zimmerman and Trayvon’s girlfriend, Trayvon asked Zimmerman what he wanted, and Zimmerman asked what he was doing there. At that point the girlfriend lost the call, and the only witness was Zimmerman, who claims that Trayvon attacked him, and he shot and killed Trayvon in self-defense.
Trayvon was unarmed, only having a bottle of iced tea and a bag of skittles in his hands.
Witnesses in the neighborhood heard shouts and screams before the gunshot, but it is unclear if the screams of pain came from Zimmerman or Trayvon. Sanford Police believed that Zimmerman was under attack; neighbors thought the screams sounded like they were coming from a young boy. In a 911 call, one neighbor told the authorities that a man in a white t-shirt was on top of the other man.
The police in Sanford police did not arrest George Zimmerman that night, causing nationwide protests. The Sanford City Council gave the Sanford Chief of Police, Bill Lee, a vote of no confidence. Lee has since been fired.
The Public Responds
Due to the public outcry, the matter was reviewed by a federal grand jury, and ultimately Zimmerman was arrested.
Meanwhile, community activists, lawyers and journalists did much of the investigation the police did not do — finding the neighborhood witnesses, Trayvon’s girlfriend and Zimmerman’s arrest record (in 2005 he was arrested for resisting arrest with violence and battery on law enforcement, but those charges were dropped). They also uncovered records showing that Zimmerman was something of a crime watch fanatic who called the police 46 times in 18 months. Of those calls, 4 were to report young black men walking around the tranquil gated community. Other members of the community had made official complaints about Zimmerman’s zealousness as a volunteer watchman. Since the police did not arrest Zimmerman, forensic screenings, including whether he was intoxicated at the time of the shooting, were not done.
The “Stand Your Ground” Law
Trayvon’s death has also exposed the flaws of Florida’s “stand your ground” law (see legal our ‘legal commentary’ section), and acts as a window into the racial politics in an ethnically diverse, middle class community. As Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon’s family, said to the media: “Do we really believe that if Trayvon Martin would have pulled the trigger, he would not be arrested?”
Zimmerman’s Bond Perjury
45 days after the killing, Zimmerman was arrested and released on a $150,000 bond. He told his lawyers and the judge that he was penniless, and the bond was set relatively low according to his claim. In fact, his supporters set up a fund, and donations were flooding in. While Zimmerman told the judge he was broke, he actually had $200,000 in donations. He also held on to a passport in defiance of the authorities.
Accordingly, the prosecutor requested that his bond be revoked. Judge Kenneth Lester agreed and ordered Zimmerman to surrender into custody while he awaits trial.
Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie Zimmerman, was also arrested in connection with the bail fraud, after a jailhouse phone recording was released in which the couple spoke about money they had received in donations. The small increments of money they spoke about are said to be code for much larger sums of money, $155,000 to be exact. Prosecutors allege that she was making small deposits of the donation money sent to the Zimmermans in an effort to conceal how much the couple actually had.
Since this incident that landed both Zimmermans in jail, his wife has since been released on $1,000 bond. The remainder of the money has been deposited into an independent trust and cannot be accessed or applied to anything without the permission of the trust administrator. After a recent bond hearing that resembled a trial in which witnesses were called to the stand, the judge decided to set Zimmerman’s release at a $1 million bond. Zimmerman posted bond on July 6 and was released from custody.
More Evidence Released to the Public
After Zimmerman’s arrest, the public outrage subsided. New information about the shooting was released. Photographs taken of Zimmerman when he was arrested showed that his scalp was bloodied, and his nose was broken. A witness told the police that he saw a black man on top of another man, punching him “mixed martial arts style.”
The special prosecutor released a video to the public in which Zimmerman, at the location of the shooting, walks detectives through his take on the events of that night. In the video Zimmerman, though uncertain of minute details, tells a story of self defense in which he feared for his life while being beaten on the head by Martin. He also describes his injuries to the detectives.
Reports show that officers were not convinced of the severity of Zimmerman’s injuries. While all agreed that he had cuts on the back of his head, there was dispute as to whether he had fractured his nose.
Detective Chris Sereno, who interrogated Zimmerman the day after the shooting, said he was not fully convinced of Zimmerman’s claims. Sereno, who has since been taken off the case and reassigned to uniformed patrol duty, claims that Zimmerman came to a “faulty conclusion” about Martin. He also states that he believes Zimmerman’s injuries are only “marginally consistent” with a life threatening attack and that he does not believe Martin used deadly force. Sereno was also the first officer to suggest a manslaughter charge. Police originally stated there was no reason for an arrest.
The Martin family’s lawyer Benjamin Crump claims Sereno was taken off of the case and demoted for telling the truth.
Zimmerman had a long and contentious relationship with the Sanford Police Department. He often exchanged emails with Police Chief Bill Lee about local crime and accused the department of not doing their jobs well. When officers arrived on the scene of Martin’s shooting, they already knew Zimmerman well.
Medical examiners found THC, the active chemical in marijuana, in Trayvon’s blood. Trayvon had been suspended from school only a few days earlier when school administrators found traces of marijuana residue in a baggie on his person.
Forensic evidence has shown that Trayvon was shot at extremely close range.
The Duval County State Attorney released the results of DNA testing of the clothing, weapons and persons of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon’s DNA was conclusively not on the Kel Tec 9 mm firearm that Zimmerman used to kill the 17-year-old. However, the tests show DNA for at least three people on the gun’s holster, including Zimmerman’s. The others could not be determined, and Trayvon’s could not be ruled out.
Zimmerman’s DNA was not found under Trayvon’s fingernails, but his DNA was found on the bottom of the Nike sweatshirt Trayvon wore under his hoodie. Trayvon’s blood was also found on Zimmerman’s jacket.
Interviews with witnesses to the shooting have told various stories. One woman said she saw a chase, then later admitted she had seen only one person running and could not identify him because she had just taken her contacts out. The witness who said he saw mixed martial arts punching now says he is not sure whether the man was throwing punches or just pinning the other man down.
That witness was certain, however, that the man on top was Trayvon. Meanwhile, another witness was certain that the man on top was Zimmerman. Yet another witness told police that the “bigger” man was on top — whether she meant Martin, who is taller, or Zimmerman, who is broader, is unknown.
However, evidence shows that Zimmerman’s back was wet and covered in grass, which tends to support his version of the facts — that Martin was on top in the struggle.
Yet another witness told law enforcement that she was the first person on the scene, before even the police arrived. She said that Zimmerman asked her to get his wife, explaining that he had just shot someone. His voice was flat and unemotional, “like it was no big deal,” she said.