Sanford, Florida, police have released their version of the facts that led to the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Although the Florida State Police have taken over the investigation, the beleaguered Sanford, Florida, police department is apparently trying to defend its reputation.
In order to sway public opinion, the Sanford police have provided their findings regarding Martin's death to the media. Rather than legitimizing George Zimmerman's assertion of self-defense, these "facts" reveal a fatal flaw in his defense.
According to the police, Zimmerman left his car "to follow" Martin on foot. Suddenly, however, Martin simply disappeared. In the span of just one minute (yes, 60 seconds), Zimmerman returned to his vehicle when Martin suddenly approached him from behind and asked if he "had a problem." After Zimmerman said "no," Martin allegedly gave Zimmerman a "single punch," which knocked him to the ground.
Martin then allegedly jumped on top of Zimmerman and began punching him. Moments later, Zimmerman yelled before shooting Martin in the chest from the ground.
Police Portray Martin as the Aggressor
The police version of the events portrays Martin as the initial aggressor. This is a very important conclusion from a legal perspective. The initial aggressor can only claim self-defense in limited scenarios. Also, an initial aggressor has a "duty to retreat" to safety (rather than standing his or her ground).
Zimmerman contends that he was walking towards his car when Trayvon approached him from behind. If this is true, then Martin should have continued home, rather than beginning an altercation with Zimmerman. Since he did not, Zimmerman had the right to use force to defend himself.
Whether lethal force was justifiable depends upon whether Zimmerman reasonably feared death or serious bodily injury. Zimmerman's lawyer has said he suffered an injured nose and scratches. Other than knowing that Martin died from a gunshot, police have not released any information regarding the condition of his body.
Trayvon Martin Was Not the Initial Aggressor
In order to accept the police's and Zimmerman's version of the fatal incident, it is necessary to ignore all of the events that led to the moment when Zimmerman and Martin first interacted. 911 tapes reveal that before they met, Zimmerman was in his car following Martin. Not only did Zimmerman begin watching and following Martin before the 911 call, he continued to watch him during the call.
Zimmerman told the operator that he believed that Martin was "up to no good" and that he was on "drugs." Zimmerman also said that he was angry that the "fucking assholes" always get away with burglaries in the area. He also referred to Martin as a "fucking coon," an obvious racial slur.
Zimmerman's Story Has a Fatal Flaw
Near the very end of his call, Zimmerman said that Martin was "walking towards" him and, moments later, that he "ran." Zimmerman then exits his car, but the dispatcher told him not to confront Martin. Zimmerman ignores the dispatcher's request. Instead, Zimmerman leaves and follows Martin.
At this point, police state that "[t]here is about a one-minute gap during which . . . they're not sure what happened." Zimmerman, however, says that during this time, he suddenly could not find Martin; therefore, he started walking towards his car. Instantly, Martin reappeared and confronted Zimmerman, asking him if he had a "problem." Zimmerman allegedly said "no." Then, supposedly, Martin attacked him.
The hole in this story is easy to spot. Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that Martin was walking directly towards him before he ran. At that moment and against the instruction of the police dispatcher, Zimmerman left his car to follow -- not to find -- Martin.
According to Zimmerman, however, Martin suddenly vanished into thin air. One moment he was in plain view; within seconds, he was gone. But within less than a minute, Zimmerman was already going back to his truck, when Martin suddenly reappeared and brutally attacked him, after which Zimmerman killed Martin. According to police, this happened in about a minute. Although Zimmerman was so concerned about Martin's presence in the neighborhood, he lost track of him and stopped looking for him in a matter of seconds. Zimmerman's account sounds fictional.
Zimmerman's version of the events is further undermined by statements from Martin's girlfriend. Phone records indicate that Martin was talking with his girlfriend shortly before the shooting. Rather than being "up to no good," Martin was doing something that teenagers do quite often: he was on the phone.
Martin's girlfriend says he told her that a man was following him and that he was scared. She says she told Martin to try to get away, but she suddenly heard shoving before the phone went dead. If her statements are correct, then Zimmerman continued walking towards Martin and angrily confronted him. Because Zimmerman, according to his own statement, followed Martin in his car and on-foot, and because of his tone during the 911 call (plus his history of antagonizing people he believed did not belong in the area), Zimmerman was likely the initial aggressor. Rather than confronting Martin, Zimmerman should have stayed in or retreated to his car. Because he did not, Martin acted in self-defense, not Zimmerman.
Black Men Can Be Victims Too
Although many folks want to pretend that racism is nonexistent, this is far from the truth. Instead, numerous studies confirm that racial biases -- both implicit and explicit -- persist in the United States. Implicit biases (pp. 2042-2052) are the most difficult to counter because they are nonconsious ways of evaluating individuals. Racial stereotypes can even influence the behavior of people who embrace racial egalitarianism and condemn prejudice.
One study of implicit racial bias shows that whites often view blacks as more aggressive than whites. The testers asked observers to watch a conversation that becomes heated and which ends with one person pushing the other. Testers then asked the observers to rate (p. 2046) what they saw as "horsing around, dramatic, aggressive, or violent." The observers did not know that the people they were watching were actually actors. The actors had been coached to perform the push in a particular way. The results (p. 2046) are striking, and they are relevant to this case:
When the victim was white and the person initiating the physical contact was black, seventy-five percent of the subjects interpreted the shove as violent. Only six percent described it as horsing around or dramatic. The results were markedly different when the victim was black and the pusher was white. In this scenario, only seventeen percent of the subjects labeled the contact as violent. Instead, forty-two percent of the subjects rated the white perpetrator as horsing around or being dramatic.Implicit racial biases might make it difficult for whites to view blacks as victims and whites as aggressors. These biases perhaps explain why Sanford police believed Zimmerman's version of the events, which portrayed the unarmed Martin as the initial aggressor. Whether jurors accept Zimmerman's assertion of self-defense will depend upon how they respond to racial stereotypes.
The public has now begun to hear that Zimmerman suffered injuries and that Martin attacked him. If people accept racial stereotypes that make it difficult to believe that blacks can be victims or that whites can be aggressors, then they will likely credit Zimmerman's self-defense argument. Although the facts might clearly show that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor, racial stereotypes might prevent jurors from accepting these facts. Racial stereotypes could also lead people to believe that Martin used excessive force and that Zimmerman's use of lethal force was reasonable.
Accordingly, prosecutors will need to emphasize strongly that Zimmerman was the initial aggressor. To the extent that Martin inflicted physical harm upon Zimmerman, he acted in self-defense against an angry amateur police officer, who was tired of assholes and coons committing crimes in his neighborhood.
This case presents an excellent opportunity to discuss the operation of racial stereotypes in a supposedly post-racial society. Equal justice depends upon this vital dialogue taking place.
Update: This essay was edited to reflect the fact that before Zimmerman ended the 911 call, he said Trayvon "ran."
For more analysis, see:
BREAKING NEWS: Geraldo Rivera Says Hoodie Killed Trayvon Martin
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
Trayvon Martin: 911 Call Contradicts Police Account (Audio)
SHOCKING NEW WITNESS TESTIMONY IN TRAYVON MARTIN CASE!
Trayvon Martin: "Stand Your Ground" Rule Has NOTHING To Do With This Case