On the night of February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African American child, was shot and killed while walking back from the store; Martin was unarmed, carrying only an Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles. The admitted shooter, George Zimmerman, a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” coordinator, was not charged, or even arrested until 43 days after the crime took place – the lack of police action during those 43 days was caused by a combination of Florida’s “Stand your ground” self-defense law and decisions by those in the Florida justice system. This tragedy has provoked significant outcry and protest, as well as discussions over institutional racism and “Stand your ground” laws.
The Trayvon Martin tragedy began when Martin went to the store for a snack, and was followed by the shooter, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claims that Martin was “suspicious”, thus he followed Martin after calling the police. While he has yet to elaborate on why he saw Martin as suspicious, Zimmerman has called 911 over “suspicious” black men walking around the Sanford, FL neighborhood that he resides in on numerous occasions, leading many to see this as a case of racial profiling. While the police were en-route, Zimmerman exited his vehicle in order to chase after Martin on foot and there was a confrontation (against police orders and despite his complete lack of authority). Auditory witnesses, backed up by a 911 recording from a neighbor which actually recorded the shot, show that this confrontation ended with Martin crying for help, only to be silenced by a single gunshot; we know that it was Martin calling for help, despite Zimmerman’s claims to the contrary, because several audio experts have concluded that the voice on the recording doesn’t match Zimmerman.
When the police arrived on scene, Zimmerman admitted to shooting Martin, but claimed self-defense and that he shot Martin while being battered – and in fear for his life. The police who responded held Zimmerman for questioning, but he was later released and allowed to go home with his clothes and the murder weapon. Zimmerman was released by the police despite the fact that the lead homicide detective, Det. Serino, registered serious doubts as to his story’s truthfulness and recommended charges of manslaughter to the district attorney.
Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense are dubious for several reasons: First, Zimmerman is a 200lb adult, while Martin was a 150lb minor. Just based upon the size difference, it is highly unlikely that the unarmed Martin posed a threat to the armed Zimmerman. Second, neither video of Zimmerman, taken from the police station, nor the coroner’s report on Martin show evidence of a significant fight (broken knuckles, bloody noses, bruises, cuts, etc.). A surveillance video shows some marks on the back of Zimmerman’s head, but the damage is not consistent with a sustained beating against concrete – If the fight occurred like Zimmerman claims, that Martin “punched him in the face” and “slammed his head into the sidewalk”, these injuries would have been inevitable. Third, witnesses heard Martin crying out for help before the shot, which would be unlikely if he were beating Zimmerman at the time.
Zimmerman claimed to have shot Martin while on the ground being pummeled, yet most evidence seems to contradict this. Despite, claiming to have sustained a serious beating, Zimmerman was not brought to the hospital by the police. Either the police were negligent in not bringing a man with severe head trauma to the hospital to check for life-threatening injuries (skull fractures, internal bleeding, etc.), or Zimmerman was not beaten as badly as he claims.
What should have been a simple, but terrible, case of overzealous vigilantism, potentially fueled by racism and allowed by lax gun laws, grew into a national scandal due to a complete lack of justice for the victim as well as the unusual police response to the shooting. In addition to the outcry over the injustice of this situation, the shooting has illustrated the severe problems with the Florida self-defense laws.
The police investigation of the Trayvon Martin shooting has been widely regarded as, at best, negligent and at worst, aiding and abetting the shooter. Zimmerman admitted to the shooting, had an inconsistent story and a history of violence (A 2005 charge of battery of a police officer and a history of domestic violence), yet he was let go mere hours after the shooting, carrying the weapon. Virtually no forensics were done on the scene and Zimmerman’s clothing was never collected for testing. The police did not run a background check on Zimmerman, the admitted shooter, that night or test him for intoxicants, yet they ran these tests on Martin, the victim. Despite having Martin’s cell phone, the police never answered his parents’ calls in order to tell them what had happened, leading to Martin being classified as a “John Doe” in the morgue for several days after his death. Witnesses to the shooting (mostly ear-witnesses), were not only neglected, but there are reports of the investigating police attempting to “correct” what the witnesses stated to have heard. From all available evidence, the police investigation into this shooting was extremely questionable and greater scrutiny may clarify just how large the mistakes of the police were.
Compounding the terrible tragedy of the shooting, a great deal of character assassination of the victim began as the situation took the national spotlight. Anonymous “leaks”, widely believed to be from the Sanford police department, have been used to insinuate that Martin was a bad person (and by extension threatening enough that Zimmerman might have had a valid case for self-defense). The first leak revealed that Martin was suspended from school at the time of the shooting for possessing a bag that had marijuana residue. Later, several pictures and private conversations were leaked from social networking pages maintained by Martin, that promoted as a “thug” or attempting to appear “gangster”. These leaks are absolutely immaterial to the case because, as Zimmerman had no prior knowledge of Martin thus, even if Martin were a serial killer, Zimmerman had no way of knowing it – He only knew what he could divine by observing Martin’s walk from the store to the point of the shooting as well as his general appearance.
The Trayvon Martin shooting has given the entire country a perfect example of the consequences of the “Stand your Ground” laws, which have been passed in dozens of states, thanks to the lobbying groups ALEC and the NRA. Under these laws, people can claim self-defense if they claim to be in fear of their lives, even if they could escape without using lethal force. As long as there are no witnesses to the crime and the victim is dead, it is very difficult to prove homicide in the face of such a wide-reaching self-defense law. Zimmerman is able to claim self-defense, regardless of the facts that he admits to initiating the conflict where he claims to have feared for his life and that some material evidence contradicts (or doesn’t support) his story. With the far-reaching defense given by “stand your ground” laws, it is no surprise that the number of “justifiable homicides” has tripled in Florida since the inception of the new laws (as reported by ThinkProgress).
In the wake of the shooting and slow investigation a national movement has mobilized to protest the injustice of the situation. Various African American groups, civil rights groups, and social activist groups have mobilized around the cause of Trayvon Martin in order to fight for justice. Not only are these groups protesting the individual case of the Trayvon Martin shooting, but they are pushing back at the racial profiling, lax investigation and “Stand your Ground” laws that are believed to have led to the situation in the first place. The “Million Hoodie Campaign” has organized a series of marches and actions nationwide to protest the inequities in the justice system for minorities. Thousands have attended speak-ins and rallies during the month since the shooting.
On the night of April 11, special prosecutor Angela Corey announced that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder (murder without pre-meditation). Within hours of the announcement, Zimmerman turned himself into police custody, where he is currently being held awaiting trial. If Zimmerman is convicted of 2nd degree murder, he faces a sentence of between 25 years and life in prison.
Based upon the history of the prosecutor, who has a very tough reputation (she once tried a 12 year old as an adult), it seems likely that the case will go to court and will continue to be a controversial situation for some time to come. Regardless of the arrest and eventual results of the trial, this shooting has started several very serious discussions over racism in the criminal justice system, lax gun laws, and the terrible consequences of racial profiling.