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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guilty of Walking While Black

Trayvon Martin had accompanied his father to visit his father’s fiancé who lived in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. The NBA All-Star basketball game was about to start and he walked to a nearby convenience store, where he purchased an iced tea and a package of Skittles candy. The 17-year-old headed back. He whipped out his cell phone to chat with his girlfriend, as he had several times that day, as teenagers in love often do. He placed his phone in his pocket and spoke through a headpiece. At some point, it began to rain. He hung up, but promised to call her back, after he had run for cover from the rain. Trayvon called her back at 7:12pm. They spoke for four minutes. At 7:17pm, police arrived to find Trayvon, lying on the ground, bleeding from a gunshot wound that had killed him instantly.

By all accounts, Trayvon was a typical teenage boy. He obviously liked sports, chocolate, and the reports of his "on-and-off phone calls all day to his girlfriend" are reminiscent of the high school puppy love many of us experienced at that age. He was like most of us; except most of us are not gunned down on suburban streets. Trayvon’s killing, and what happened afterward, should be of concern to all of us.

George Zimmerman, 28, lives in Sanford. He moved there a decade ago from Manassas, Virginia with his parents. He attended Seminole State College and hoped to join the local police department. That didn’t happen. In 2005, he was arrested for fighting with a state alcohol agent at a bar. A month later, court records show a woman petitioned for an injunction against him, citing domestic violence.

But George still wanted to play cops and robbers. He got a gun, legally licensed, and became a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. I don’t object to owning a gun to protect your home, but I’m not sure if volunteers should be allowed to roam the streets with loaded 9mm guns. Last I heard, one needed an additional concealed weapons permit to carry a gun on the streets of Florida. Over the past 15 months, George Zimmerman made 46 calls to Sanford police to report “suspicious” individuals. He was either zealous or paranoid… or both. On February 26, he made his last call to Sanford police to report another suspicious individual – Trayvon Martin.

I don’t know what made the teenage boy “suspicious”. I doubt it was the iced tea… it gets hot in Florida, even at night. And teenage boys eating candy, well, that strikes me as normal. Talking on a cell phone is practically the norm these days, too. Oh, wait. I forgot to mention Trayvon was black. That didn’t seem important to me. Maybe it was important to George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is a Latino. In the tape recording of his call to police, Zimmerman is heard to mutter what sounds like a racial epithet. I listened to a digitally enhanced version of the tape, and I clearly heard “fucking coons”, but since it was an altered tape, I cannot attest to its veracity. I also heard the unenhanced recordings:

Zimmerman (out of breath): “These assholes always get away.”

Police Dispatcher: "Are you following him?"

Zimmerman: "Yeah."

Police Dispatcher: "We don't need you to do that."

Zimmerman: “Okay.”

Zimmerman ignored the police instructions not to chase Trayvon Martin. He left his car, armed with a 9mm gun, and pursued him. Despite being able to drive away, Zimmerman would later claim self defense in the shooting. Trayvon’s girlfriend, on the phone with him at the time, filled in the blanks.

"Oh he's right behind me, he's right behind me again," Trayvon told her, according to the Martin family attorney.

“Run!” she replied.

“'I'm not going to run, I'm just going to walk fast," Trayvon reportedly told her.

“Baby, be careful, just run home.”

"I think I lost him." Moments later, Trayvon said, "He is right behind me again. I'm not going to run, I'm going to walk fast."

She heard Trayvon ask, “Why are you following me?" and a man’s reply, “What are you doing around here?" Zimmerman did not identify himself as a Neighborhood Watch volunteer. All Trayvon saw was a 240lb. Latino man pointing a 9mm gun at him. It was the last thing he ever saw.

His girlfriend heard an argument before the phone call went dead. She speculated the headset fell from his head during the scuffle. White neighbors interviewed later on TV reported hearing frantic screams for help, then a gunshot, and then… silence.

Zimmerman was questioned by police and released without any charges. ABC News reported Zimmerman, despite his slurred speech on the tapes, was not tested for drugs or alcohol, as is routine in many homicide cases. However, Trayvon’s body was tested for drugs at the morgue. Zimmerman’s statement was not taken by a trained homicide detective but rather by a narcotics detective.

Trayvon's 16-year-old girlfriend was so traumatized she had to be hospitalized that night. Trayvon's father searched frantically for his son. Sanford police did not tell him Trayvon's body lay in their morgue (he reportedly found out three days later), nor did they answer his calls to Trayvon’s cell phone, nor did they dial any of the phone numbers on Trayvon's phone to notify his next of kin. They were too busy testing his body for drugs. After all, he was a black teen, so that presumably made it reasonable to assume he was on drugs. Skittles are highly addictive, you know. Trayvon’s test results came back clean.

Sanford police had the phone records but never questioned Trayvon’s girlfriend. According to ABC News, “police dismissed eyewitness accounts, failed to investigate the shooter’s background, and immediately accepted (his) claim of self defense.” Sanford police withheld seven 911 tapes from eye witnesses for two weeks until forced by public pressure to release them. There should have been an arrest followed by an investigation. The police chief’s statements, later contradicted by the taped evidence, are cause for a further investigation of a police cover-up.

Everything I have written is factual. As a journalist, I learned to report facts. My opinion will come in tomorrow’s blog. But I’ll leave you with my favorite expression from law school: Res ipsa loquitur – a Latin phrase in law meaning “the thing speaks for itself.”

Zimmerman admits in the tapes the boy was “a teenager”. He was told by the police dispatcher not to pursue the boy, yet he did so anyway, carrying a loaded gun. The unarmed boy’s voice is clearly heard on the tape crying for help. There is a gunshot. No more screams for help are heard and the boy is dead. Why was Zimmerman armed in the first place? He was not a police officer or security guard, but rather a self-appointed vigilante. This was not self defense: he was in a car and could have driven away. The moment he exited the car, armed with a weapon in pursuit of the boy, he became the stalker and self defense does not enter the picture.

Res ipsa loquitur.

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