Saturday, March 17, 2012

Trayvon Martin: 911 Call Contradicts Police Account (Audio)


Under threat of litigation, police in Sanford, Florida have released 911 tapes related to the February 26 killing of Trayvon Martin. Martin's death has begun to attract national media attention.  This case underscores the continuation of racial injustice in the United States.

George Zimmerman, who is white, killed Martin, who was black, after he called police and reported that a suspicious person was walking in his neighborhood. Martin was visiting his father and was returning home from a local convenience store. During the 911 call, the police dispatcher told Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, but he left his car nonetheless. During other 911 calls, neighbors reported a scuffle between two individuals. Screams and gunshots are heard in the background.

Despite the increasing evidence that points to a crime, police have refused to arrest Zimmerman. Instead, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has credited Zimmerman's statement that he acted in self-defense when he killed Martin.

Earlier this week, Lee also tried to downplay the significance of race in Martin's death. Lee, for example, stated that race could not have been a factor in Martin's death because when the police dispatcher asked Zimmerman to state the race of the individual he was observing, Zimmerman responded that he did not know. The 911 tape, however, directly contradicts Lee's statement. Instead, Zimmerman initially said that he believed Martin was black, and then a few seconds later he said that he was a "black male."

In addition to contradicting Lee's account, the 911 tape also strongly suggests that Zimmerman acted pursuant to racial stereotypes, prejudice or both. Zimmerman recited several racial stereotypes during the call. He said that Martin seemed "up to no good." Zimmerman also speculated that Martin was "on drugs or something." Zimmerman said that Martin had his hand in his "waistband," implying that unarmed boy was armed and dangerous. During the call, Zimmerman stated that there had been several burglaries in his neighborhood, and he lamented that they "always get away."

Near the end of the call, strong winds are suddenly audible. This suggests that Zimmerman had already left his car to pursue Martin even before he ended the call. Nevertheless, police insist that this was a case of self-defense. The tape, however, contradicts this conclusion. Martin was simply walking home.  Unfortunately, he crossed paths with Zimmerman who imagined himself to be a law enforcement officer.

Zimmerman did not fear for his life. Instead, he left his vehicle with a gun to pursue an innocent boy. Martin must have been frightened. Zimmerman apparently did not want another one to "get away." Under these circumstances, Zimmerman has no right to assert a self-defense argument. He initiated aggressive contact with Martin. When Zimmerman killed Martin, he committed manslaughter -- at the very least. If Sanford police care about equal justice, they should arrest Zimmerman.  Also, given the history of racial strife and cronyism in the Sanford police department, Lee should lose his job. As a result of his behavior in this case, he can no longer serve the public effectively.

Note: Zimmerman's 911 call, courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel, is embedded below this post.

For more analysis, see:

Trayvon Martin: A Fatal Flaw in Zimmerman's Self-Defense Argument

George Zimmerman, Killer of Trayvon Martin: The Man Who Would Be Cop

Sorry, Trayvon Martin: They Just Don't Like You

BREAKING NEWS in Trayvon Martin Case: Officer in the Case Has A Prior Record of Racial Controversy

BREAKING NEWS: Geraldo Rivera Says Hoodie Killed Trayvon Martin


grace said...

Excellent summary!

Nell said...


Would you care to comment on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" self-defense law and how it might make any case eventually brought against Zimmerman more difficult to prosecute?

Until reading about this tragic event this week, I had only a passing knowledge of such laws, which eliminate the traditional legal "duty to retreat" when claiming self defense. I understand Florida was the first state to pass such a law.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hello, Nell. Yes, Florida has removed the duty to "retreat" that many (most?) states have with self-defense. This doesn't affect the facts here because aggressors cannot assert self-defense in the first place. The person who acted in self-defense was Trayvon Martin - not Zimmeman.

But - it is terrible that FL eliminated the duty to retreat.

Nell said...

Oh, Darren, I agree that it was Trayvon who was acting in self-defense, but my understanding is that Zimmerman was released based on his claims of self-defense. And since poor Trayvon isn't here to give his side of the story, prosecutors will have a difficult time refuting Zimmerman's word that he believed he was in fear of his life or great bodily harm.

I find it hard to believe that Florida law will allow the clear aggressor here to go unpunished. I'm hoping Florida's Stand Your Ground law is more nuanced than what I've read about it so far.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Nell -- there is certainly probable cause to arrest. He admitted to killing someone. He would have to prove self-defense. It isn't the government's job to disprove it. In order to do so, he would have to testify. With that comes lots of questions -- like his arrest for attacking a cop, his aggression against other neighbors, along with q/a about the night (why did he leave the car, etc).

Nell said...

Darren, you make a good point about the affirmative nature of a claim of self-defense - to wit, it would be incumbent upon the defendant to prove he acted in self-defense. Although such a defense might be easier to prove on his part given the "no duty to retreat" feature of Florida law.

The "Stand Your Ground" nature of Florida law notwithstanding, Zimmerman would still need to prove the reasonableness and proportionality of his response. You aren't entitled to pull a gun and shoot just because some hothead pushed you off your barstool. And yet, I'm still troubled by the idea that Zimmerman could invoke self-defense, given that, at any point during the altercation, he felt in fear of his life. Being unfamiliar with Florida case law in the wake of the adoption of the "Stand Your Ground" legislation, I may be overly pessimistic.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Nell, I did some more research. Under Florida law, AGGRESSORS have a duty to retreat! So, they would have to prove that Zimmerman was the aggressor.

776.041 Use of force by aggressor.—The justification described in the preceding sections of this chapter is not available to a person who:
(1) Is attempting to commit, committing, or escaping after the commission of, a forcible felony; or
(2) Initially provokes the use of force against himself or herself, unless:
(a) Such force is so great that the person reasonably believes that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that he or she has exhausted every reasonable means to escape such danger other than the use of force which is likely to cause death or great bodily harm to the assailant; or
(b) In good faith, the person withdraws from physical contact with the assailant and indicates clearly to the assailant that he or she desires to withdraw and terminate the use of force, but the assailant continues or resumes the use of force.

Nell said...

Thanks Darren. I read the statute today, too, as well as the history of some of the cases that have been investigated since the law became effective about six years ago. A shocking number of cases involving the killing of unarmed victims have been dismissed.

I still see a lot of wiggle room for Zimmerman in 776.041 (2)(a) if he can convince a jury that Martin attacked him first. The prosecution's case might hinge on his failure to follow the 911 dispatcher's instructions not to pursue. I wish I were more optimistic about Zimmerman facing justice, but sadly, I'm not. Best case scenario, he'll face manslaughter charges, and a conviction is far from a slam dunk.

Nice talking with you, Darren, and I really do hope I'm wrong.

Unknown said...


It seems like a very important detail from the 911 tape has been missed. At the 1:51-1:53 mark, George say "these f-cking coons" right after he says "they always get away." He whispers it, but you can clearly hear he used the racial slur "coon." This was a hate crime plain and simple. Disgusting.

Greggles said...

I think we all need to wait until all the facts come out from this case before rushing to judgment against this man Zimmerman.

Darren Hutchinson, you seem like you are a very intelligent person who has a firm grasp on the law (I imagine you are likely an attorney). That being said, while this never should have happened, why are you convicting someone before he has had a trial of any kind? That is neither intelligent, or what was intended by our right to a "jury of our peers" in criminal trials guaranteed by the Constitution.

If he is found guilty beyond a resonable doubt, then by all means, trash him. But until then, everyone talking like they were an eye-witness and saying that Zimmerman should be strung up only sounds foolish and ignorant.

I'm sure none of these people would jump to such conclusions if they were arrested and wanted to get a fair trial before everyone convicted them publicly before any legal proceedings occurred.

Let the justice system is there for your protection as well as Zimmermans...

Nell said...

I wouldn't presume to speak for Darren (and I don't agree with everything he's written on this case), but I don't see him convicting Zimmerman prior to trial. He's making the case (and I do agree with him on this point) that there was ample probable cause to detain Zimmerman and charge him with a criminal act immediately following the shooting.

Make no mistake. A homicide (not synonymous with murder, btw) has occurred and the killer has confessed to pulling the trigger. He has also claimed that he was justified in doing so by virtue of defending his own life. In most states (including mine where I practice law), Zimmerman would likely have been charged with some degree of negligent homicide, whereupon a probable cause hearing would be held, at which the defendant would put forward his affirmative defense of self-defense. The judge would then rule whether there was sufficient evidence to proceed to trial. If a trial ensued, it is then up to the prosecution to disprove the defendant's claim of self-defense (that is to say, the burden of proof never shifts to the defendant).

As a lawyer and former prosecutor, what I find most appalling about this case is the shoddy nature of the initial investigation. Zimmerman was not detained, he was not drug- or alcohol-tested, nor was his gun even confiscated. My fear is that even if Zimmerman is eventually indicted, any prosecution of the case has already been hopelessly compromised.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Nell, You're a great advocate!

No, I am not convicting Mr. Zimmerman. Yes - I am an attorney, and I am also a Law Professor. I teach Constitutional Law. So, I am aware of due process requirements.

But, given the facts -- even though they are sketchy -- there seems to be ample evidence to charge Zimmerman with a crime. I have seen probable cause met by the testimony of 1 witness, without physical evidence linking the person to a crime. Here, we have a admission to the homicide and a 911 call that indicates the assailant was tracking the young man. That is probable cause alone. It is not guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but the two standards apply at different stages in the process.

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