Walking While Black: The Killing of Trayvon Martin

Jan 7, 2013 - by Don Fulsom - 0 Comments

Trayvon Martin

Based on the dictates of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the jury in the Trayvon Martin murder case had virtually no legal basis to do anything but acquit George Zimmerman of both second-degree murder and manslaughter. 

by Don Fulsom and Alisha Dingus

UpdateZimmerman Arrested on Domestic Violence Charges -- Threatens Girlfriend With Shotgun

Just over four months after his acquittal for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was arrested on charges of agravated assault, battery, domestic violence and criminal mischief. The complaint was filed by his girlfriend, Samatha Scheibe, who called 911 on the afternoon of November 18, 2013, to report that Zimmerman had broken a glass table in her house, threatened her with a shotgun, pushed her out of her home with the shotgun pointed at her face and barricaded himself inside by pushing furniture up against the front door. Scheibe's home is in Apopka, Florida, about 15 miles from Orlando.

On the 911 tape Scheibe, 27, is heard yelling at Zimmerman: "You put a gun in my freakin' face" and then telling the dispatcher that "He knows how to do this. He knows how to play this game."

Zimmerman was arrested without incident.

At the bail hearing the next day, county prosecutors in Sanford, Florida, told Judge Fred Schott that Scheibe was afraid for her own safety, saying she said that Zimmerman had chocked her during an unreported incident a week ago. She told the prosecutors she was in the process of breaking up with Zimmerman when he forced her out of her own house. Scheibe said Zimmerman, who had been living with her since August, kept a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle and two handguns in her home.

Although prosecutors asked for bail to be set at $50,000, Judge Schott set it at $9,000 and Zimmerman was released on bail that day. The terms of bail include no contact with Scheibe, Zimmerman must remain in Florida, he may not posess firearms or ammunition, and he must wear an electronic bracelet until his arraignment on January 7, 2014.

Two months earlier, Zimmerman was in investigative detention after his estranged wife, Shellie Zimmerman, called 911 to report that he was threatening her and her father. Lake Mary Police Chief Steve Bracknell said the 911 call was placed just after 2 p.m. on September, 9, 2012, and that Mrs. Zimmerman told police that Zimmernan was inside her father's house and that he had "battered her father."

Lake Mary is a suburb of Orlando, near Sanford where Zimmerman shot to death the unarmed, 17-year-old Martin.

During the five-minute 911 call, Shellie Zimmerman is heard saying, "He's in his car and he continually has his hand on his gun and he keeps saying, 'step closer' and he's just threatening all of us with his firearm and he's going to shoot us."  Later duing the 911 call she said, "He punched my dad in the nose. My dad has a mark on his face. He accosted my father and then took my iPad out of my hands and smashed it and cut it up with a pocket knife."

Zimmerman was released from investigative detention later that afternoon when Mrs. Zimmerman refused to press charges.

A week earlier, Shellie Zimmerman filed for divorce in Seminole county. In late August she pleaded guilty to perjury for lying about the couple's financial status during a bond hearing in April of 2012. She had claimed that she and her husband were destitute when in fact they had recently collected about $135,000 in donations in support of Zimmerman's defense.

In the recent past, Zimmerman, according to CNN, has been stopped twice on traffic violations. The first was in Texas where he was given a verbal warning and reportedly told the officers that he had a firearm in his glove box. The second was last week in Florida where he was issued a $256 ticket for speeding.


While it remains true that if George Zimmerman had obeyed the police dispatcher’s directive to remain in his car and to wait for patrol officers to arrive to question the person in the “hoodie,” Trayvon Martin would not have been shot to death.  In the end, it did not matter that Zimmerman had profiled the young black man as a likely criminal up to no good, lacing his conversation with the dispatcher with profanities, using the word “punks” and saying, “They always get away.”

The only one who ended up getting away was Zimmerman himself. A Seminole County, Florida jury of six women – five white and one Hispanic – deliberated for just over 16 hours before acquitting the 29-year-old Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the 2012 slaying.  The verdict by the sequestered jury came late into the night of the second day of deliberations, around 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, 2013.

Despite the late hour, more than 10 million people viewed the verdict on the four cable networks that provided extensive coverage and commentary of the trial. The week before in the same time slot, 1.6 million viewers were tuned into Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and HLN, a CNN offshoot that specializes in covering criminal trials.

George Zimmerman
George Zimmerman

As the trial progressed, it became more and more apparent that the government’s burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had murdered Martin out of malice or had killed him in an unjustified way, were both hurdles too high to mount. The murder charge required a showing that Zimmerman was full of ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent when he shot Martin.

“Even after three weeks of testimony, the fight between Mr. Martin and Mr. Zimmerman on that rainy night was a muddle, fodder for reasonable doubt,” a front page account in The New York Times read the next morning. “It remained unclear who had started it, who screamed for help, who threw the first punch and at what point Mr. Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting.”

The prosecution’s case against Zimmerman became so befuddled during the course of the trial that his defense attorneys never invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as part of his defense and waived the initial Stand Your Ground hearing. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law did make it into Judge Debra Nelson’s instructions to the jury, and, in reality, left the jury with no plausible way to convict Zimmerman on either charge:  

In deciding whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you must judge him by the circumstances by which he was surrounded at the time the force was used. The danger facing George Zimmerman need not have been actual; however, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force. Based upon appearances, George Zimmerman must have actually believed that the danger was real.

If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

george zimmerman bloody
George Zimmerman bloody

In an article entitled, “Trayvon Martin and the Irony of American Justice,” published in The Atlantic on July 15, 2013, Ta-Heisi wrote, “In trying to assess the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, two seemingly conflicting truths emerge for me. The first is that based on the case presented by the state, and based on Florida law, George Zimmerman should not have been convicted. The second is that the killing of Trayvon Martin is a profound injustice.”

Many state Stand Your Ground laws, including Florida’s, go beyond traditional concepts of self-defense and act as legal immunity to filing criminal charges in self-defense cases. George Zimmerman wasn’t initially charged when the police at the scene determined Florida’s Stand Your Ground law made him immune to criminal charges. Zimmerman, after all, was a member of the volunteer neighborhood watch and had a legal right to be there. Martin, of course, also had a legal right to be where he was.

What makes Florida’s Stand Your Ground such an expansion over the age-old “A Man’s Home is His Castle,” doctrine is that it covers any space where a person is legally present, including public places. The so-called “Castle Law” pertained to using necessary force to defend one’s home against an intruder. Zimmerman’s Stand Your Ground immunity covered him in his car and on foot while he followed Trayvon Martin. 

For 44 days Zimmerman had the benefit of that immunity until public outrage at the killing of an unarmed black teen led first to the firing of the Sanford police chief and then to the appointment by the governor of a new prosecutor who promptly filed charges of second degree murder aginst Zimmerman. The national clamor that led to the indictment was over the perceived notion that Zimmerman had profiled Martin as some sort of criminal because he was black, stalked him, and shot him to death. In essence, Zimmerman was brought to trial to answer for killing Martin simply because of his bias against blacks -- a hate crime, pure and simple.

Zimmerman, however, was never tried on the basis of a hate crime. During pre-trial motions, the judge ordered that no mention of race be advanced by either the proseuction or the defense. The overfiding racial overtones of the case were thus muted. The best the prosecution could do to raise the race motive for Martin's killing was to argue that Zimmerman "profiled" Martin before deciding to pursue him. With the hate crime aspect of the case off the table, Zimmerman's eventual acquittal was a foregone conclusion.

“Every step Mr. Martin took toward the end of his all too-short life was defined by his race,” wrote Professor Ekow N. Yankah of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, in an Op-Ed published in The New York Times two days after the verdict. “I do not have to believe that Mr. Zimmerman is a hate-filled racist to recognize that he would probably not even have noticed Mr. Martin if he had been a casually dressed white teenager.”

Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin

The day after the verdict, a Sunday, spontaneous rallies for Trayvon Martin were held in various major cities.

A week after the verdict, thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of a dozen Federal buildings across the United States to mourn Trayvon Martin’s killing. In addition, “Justice for Trayvon Martin” rallies took place in at least 100 U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. Jay-Z and Beyonce attended the New York rally. In Oakland, California, demonstrators tied up traffic on Interstate 880 during rush hour; in the Crenshaw area of South Los Angeles, a brief spate of rioting broke out.

Zimmerman will spend the rest of his life linked to the tragedy he precipitated. Although acquitted, he will never be truly free. Pre-trial, while free on $1 million bond, he lived in hiding, the target of numerous death threats. Immediately after the verdict in the gripping, made-for-cable-TV trial, Robert Zimmerman voiced concern for his brother’s safety:  “He will be looking around his shoulder the rest of his life.”   And Zimmerman’s lead lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said those who think Martin was killed for racial reasons might well react violently to George:  “He has to be cautious and protective of his safety.”

Zimmerman remains in hiding and wears a bulletproof vest when he does venture into public. Fox News reported that Zimmerman came out of hiding to respond to a car accident less than a mile from where Martin was shot and killed.

O’Mara’s client must be alert to further legal risks as well.  The U.S. Justice Department is reviewing the case for potential criminal civil rights violations.  In applauding the department’s decision, NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous declared: “The most fundamental of human rights—the right to life—was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin.”

Pointing to the same review, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said, “This isn’t over with and I think that’s good.” But a fellow Democrat, former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, argues the Justice Department might be taking a “dicey position.” Spitzer says, “Double jeopardy is a fundamental principle in our American judicial system … so it’s going to be hard for them to come back at the defendant.”

That’s not the only problem the Feds might have in bringing civil rights actions against Zimmerman.  As University of Virginia law professor Rachel Harmon asserts, “It’s not enough to show that Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin because of his race.  They would have to show that he attacked Martin for that reason.”

Harmon—a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division—made the comments to The Washington Post.  The newspaper, citing “current and former Justice Department officials” reports that it “would be extremely difficult and may not be possible” for the government to charge Zimmerman with a hate-crime “because it’s not clear that he killed Martin because of his race.”

Despite widespread public outrage over the jury’s verdict, one of the jurors took to TV just days later to contend that Zimmerman “didn’t do anything unlawful” and was “justified” in shooting Martin.  Appearing as only a silhouette, Juror B-37 also told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Zimmerman’s “heart was in the right place” when he became suspicious of Martin—and that the teen probably threw the first punch.

Four other jurors, however, quickly distanced themselves from B-37. Identified only by their court numbers, they issued a printed statement saying B-37’s views were her own and “were not in any way representative” of their feelings.  And Martin’s parents soon criticized the verdict in several TV appearances.  On NBC’s “Today,” Tracy Martin said, “I think that had Trayvon been white, this would have never happened.  Obviously, race is playing some type of role.”

On July 26, the only minority juror did an interview with Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" where she said she felt Zimmerman "Got away with murder. But you can't get away from God, And, at the end of the day, he's going to have a lot of questions and answers he has to deal with. The law couldn't prove it but, you know, you know, the world goes in circlles."

Although she did not provide her last name, she allowed ABC to show her face and know that her first name is Maddy. Thirty-six and the mother of eight children, she said that when jury deliberations began she was for convicting Zimmerman on the second-degree murder charge. She called herself the "juror who was going to give him the hung jury" and "she fought to the end" before joining the other jurors in their not-guilty votes.

"A lot of us wanted to find something bad, something we could connect to the laws. But as the law was read to me, if you have no proof he killed him intentionally, you can't say he's guilty," Maddy said.

When Roberts asked her, based on what she learned as a juror in this case, whether Zimmerman should have ever been put on trial, she said no, adding,  "I felt this was a publicity stunt."

The Killing of Trayvon Martin

The nighttime slaying of Trayvon Martin took place on February 26, 2012 in a middle-class, gated subdivision called “The Retreat at Twin Lakes” in the central Florida town of Sanford.  Martin, as he had several times previously, was there with his father visiting his father’s fiancée and her son. He had the free time to be there due to being suspended from his high school at the time. That evening Martin had gone out alone to buy some Skittles and ice tea and was returning from the store when his fatal encounter with Zimmerman took place.

The son of Sybrina and Tracy Martin, Trayvon was born on February 5, 1995.  The couple divorced four years later. Trayvon lived with his mother and older brother in Miami Gardens, Florida.

George Zimmerman was born in 1983 in Manassas, Virginia. Half Hispanic, he is the son of Gladys (Mesa) Zimmerman, who was born in Peru, and Robert Zimmerman Sr., a retired Virginia magistrate. In 2009, Zimmerman moved to Twin Lakes with his wife. He was employed as an insurance underwriter and was in his final semester of a two-year course at Seminole State College, working toward an associate degree in criminal justice. His stated goal was to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a judge.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator at Twin Lakes, was in his car on an errand when he saw Martin, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, walking inside the gated community. Zimmerman, thinking that the young black man in the hoodie might be a criminally minded gatecrasher, called Sanford police and reported what he considered to be suspicious behavior. He said the man was “cutting between houses…walking leisurely for the [rainy] weather” and that “he was looking at all the houses.”  While still on the phone with the dispatcher, Zimmerman exited his car, ignoring the dispatcher’s directive not to confront the suspect and to await the arrival of Sanford patrol officers.

Within minutes after Zimmerman terminated the phone call, Martin was mortally wounded. When police arrived minutes later, Zimmerman claimed that Martin had pounced on him, and that a violent struggle ensued on the rain-soaked lawn. Zimmerman contends he finally grabbed his gun and fired one shot to the chest of his alleged attacker. He was licensed to carry the firearm.

Martin died face down in the grass, only 70 yards from the rear door of the townhouse where he’d been staying.  Physicians who examined the autopsy findings for the Orlando Sentinel believe Martin remained alive for anywhere from 20 seconds to two minutes.

A police photo shows Zimmerman with a scratch on his forehead, along with a bloody and obviously broken nose. Other photos display vertical lacerations to the back of his head. Police at the crime scene report Zimmerman’s back was wet and covered with grass.

Aside from the one bullet wound, an autopsy found only a small abrasion below the knuckle of Martin’s left ring finger. It also turned up small traces of marijuana. The weed—which could have been smoked up to a month earlier—had no apparent connection with Martin’s behavior on the night of his murder, according to one of the prosecutors.

The U.S. Congress was on the verge of passing anti-racial profiling laws—but then 9/11 happened in 2001, and all discussion came to an abrupt halt. Now lawmakers can use “national security” as an excuse to oppose anti-racial profiling legislation. They can invoke the threat of terrorism to keep such legislation from gaining bipartisan support (the End Racial Profiling Act, introduced after Trayvon Martin’s murder, lacked any Republican backers in Congress.) 

Twenty-five states have enacted their own anti-racial profiling legislation, but those laws are regarded as ineffective. Advocates of a national standard say a major reform of Stand Your Ground laws is a good place to start.

While Martin’s parents buried and mourned the loss of their son, Zimmerman spent 44 days as a free man by invoking Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—which gives people the authority to use deadly force if they believe it is the only way “to prevent death or great bodily harm.”  This type of a defense rests on examining a person’s state of mind during a confrontation. So all Zimmerman had to do was tell police that he feared for his life ... and he was free to go home and sleep in his own bed, while Martin’s body lay unclaimed on a slab in the morgue.

A National Uproar

It took a major public uproar for charges to be leveled at Zimmerman. President Obama said shortly after the shooting that if he had a teenage son that his son would look and dress like Trayvon Martin. Under greater magnification, something seemed off about this case: Zimmerman kept changing his story; and it soon became known that 911 dispatchers had warned him not to pursue Martin.

At first, though, because of Stand Your Ground, Zimmerman became a potential crime victim. Fox News and ABC’s Barbara Walters courted him, competing for an exclusive interview. Fox won out after Walters pulled her deal off the table when Zimmerman and his wife requested to be put up in a hotel for a week, on ABC’s tab.

It has to be asked: If Zimmerman were black, would he be shopping around for the best exclusive interview deal and requesting weeklong stays in hotels? Would it have taken 44 days for him to be arrested? Would he have waltzed out of jail after putting down $100,000 of his bail money? Would people be donating to his defense fund? If the case of Marissa Alexander is any indication, the answer is no.

Alexander, also from Florida, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a warning shot during a dispute with her abusive husband. Her attorney claimed self-defense and cited the state’s Stand Your Ground laws.  Yet the jury agreed with the prosecutors that the law did not apply because Ms. Alexander left during the argument, went to the garage and retrieved her gun. The reasoning behind the decision was that because Alexander did not exit through the garage and returned to confront her husband, she acted in anger—not because she feared for her life. Alexander said she was unable to leave home through the garage because of a door malfunction.

Under this same line of logic, George Zimmerman’s defense could well fail at trial.  That’s because Trayvon Martin did not come to Zimmerman’s car. The watch commander made the choice to exit his vehicle and pursue Martin, ignoring the request of a 911 dispatcher who told him to remain in his vehicle.

In his Fox News interview in July of 2012 with Sean Hannity, Zimmerman set off a media firestorm when he said Martin’s death “was all God’s plan.” Zimmerman even admitted that he never feared for his life. When Hannity directly asked Zimmerman, who is 5 feet 8 and 185 pounds, if he felt threatened by the 6 foot, 160-pound teen, he said “No, not particularly.” He chose to go after Trayvon Martin, just as Alexander chose to go back into her house.

State Attorney Angela Corey, who prosecuted Alexander in the case, was assigned the Zimmerman case. So if one were to apply the law in the same way, Zimmerman should be convicted—unless the Stand Your Ground defense failed for Alexander because she is black. After all, Stand Your Ground laws were created, in part, to protect people like Alexander—women who try to defend themselves from abusive men. The laws were not meant to protect neighborhood vigilantes.

So something seems wrong here. A woman who harmed no one is about to spend a big chunk of time in prison, while Zimmerman got away with what his prosecutors consider murder.  In other words, when Zimmerman was acquitted, the entire justice system has to answer for what appears to be a blatant case of racial profiling.

“In a way, the not-guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for his killing of Trayvon Martin was more powerful than a guilty verdict could ever have been,” wrote Charles M. Blow, an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times, two days after the verdict was rendered. “It was the perfect wrenching coda to a story that illustrates just how utterly and completely our system of justice – both moral and legal – failed Martin and his family.” 

Consequences of Stand Your Ground Laws

Defenders of Marin argue that with Zimmerman’s acquittal anyone with a gun license will be able to take the law into their own hands. And they have statistics on their side:  Two researchers at Texas A&M University, Cheng Cheng and Mark Hoekstra, found that Stand Your Ground laws do not deter crimes like aggravated assault or burglary, but they do increase homicides. “We find that the murder and non-negligent manslaughter are increased by 7 to 9 percent. This could represent either an increased use of lethal force in self-defense situations, or the escalation of violence in otherwise non-lethal situations. Regardless, the results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense laws is increased homicides.” There have been 600 more homicides per year in states that have enacted such laws.

With Zimmerman’s acquittal, this number is only likely to increase.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in June of 2012 that after studying 200 Stand Your Ground cases in Florida that the law has been used to free the aggressors, including one person who shot someone in the back.

With the backing of the National Rifle Association, the Florida Legislature enacted the Stand Your Ground law in 2005, granting legal immunity to people who use deadly force if they reasonably believe their life is in danger.

Since Florida’s law went into effect, two dozen other states have passed similar legislation. The Miami Herald reported that several studies, including the Texas A&M one, show that so-called “justified homicides” have increased significantly in the states that have passed Stand Your Ground laws. Reports have also shown that the law had a disparate impact on racial minorities, and that many of the people who have used the Stand Your Ground defense after killing someone are ex-felons.

In response to the public uproar over Trayvon Martin’s killing, Florida Governor Rick Scott created the 19-member Citizen Safety and Protection Task Force to review Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. The Associated Press reported on November 13, 2012 that the task force, after spending six months traveling the state and taking public testimony, decided not to recommend any changes to Florida’s most controversial self-defense law. The task force refused to review the studies referenced by the Miami Herald.

“The task force concurs with the core belief that all persons, regardless of citizen status, have the right to feel safe and secure in our state,” the task force’s final report to the governor read. “To that end, all persons have a fundamental right to stand their ground and to defend themselves from attack with proportionate force in every place they have a lawful right to be and are conducting themselves in a lawful manner.”

 

Background Resources:

Drum, Kevin, “George Zimmerman and the “Great Bodily Harm” Doctrine,” Mother Jones, 3 April 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/04/george-zimmerman-and-great-bodily-harm-doctrine, (accessed 28 December 2012).

George Zimmerman: No Regrets & More—Sean Hannity Interview Highlights, The Daily Beast Video, 18 July 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/18/george-zimmerman-no-regrets-more-sean-hannity-interview-highlights-video.html, (accessed 28 December 2012)

Samuels, Allison, “What if George Zimmerman Were Black?,” The Daily Beast, 19 July 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/07/19/what-if-george-zimmerman-were-black.html (accessed 30 December 2012)

Jonsson, Patrik, “’Stand your ground’ laws: Do they put teens in greater danger?,” The Christian Science Monitor, 29 November 2012, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/1129/Stand-your-ground-laws-Do-they-put-teens-in-greater-danger (accessed 27 December 2012)

Heitzeg, Nancy, “Stand Up to ‘Stand Your Ground’,” Critical Mass Progress, 05 December 2012, http://criticalmassprogress.com/2012/12/05/ci-standing-up-to-stand-your-ground/ (accessed 27 December 2012)

Dahl, Julia, “Fla. Woman Marissa Alexander gets 20 years for ‘warning shot’: Did she stand her ground?,” CBS News, 15 May 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-57434757-504083/fla-woman-marissa-alexander-gets-20-years-for-warning-shot-did-she-stand-her-ground/, (accessed 27 December 2012)

Aegerter, Gil, “Marissa Alexander gets 20 years for firing warning shot after Stand Your Ground defense fails,” U.S. News, 11 May 2012, http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/05/11/11660804-marissa-alexander-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shot-after-stand-your-ground-defense-fails?lite, (accessed 26 December 2012)

Green, Miranda, “After Trayvon Martin: Is it Time to End Racial Profiling?,” The Daily Beast, 13 May 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/05/13/after-trayvon-martin-is-it-time-to-end-racial-profiling.html, (accessed 26 December 2012)

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