Newly released details about the night Florida teenager Trayvon Martin died at the hands of a volunteer watchman named George Zimmerman are largely consistent with Mr. Zimmerman’s self-defense claims, with one hitch: The shooter could have avoided the fight that led to the Feb. 26 killing in Sanford, Fla.
The trove of evidence, some of which has been redacted to give anonymity to witnesses, sets up the prospect of a difficult trial in which forensic evidence will rub up against questions about Zimmerman’s state of mind, his views on race, and whether the 28-year-old aspiring police officer’s sense of civic duty morphed into reckless malice.
Evidence that Zimmerman was injured after confronting someone he believed to be suspicious, the close proximity of the gun shot to the victim, and eyewitness accounts that had Zimmerman on his back, screaming for help for several seconds before firing, have prompted some critics to suggest that special prosecutor Angela Corey overcharged Zimmerman to quell public unrest over the case – a notion she has denied.
To some legal experts, the new evidence backs up Zimmerman’s original story – that he followed Trayvon, lost him, and was then attacked with “mixed martial arts” blows to a point where he feared for his life. A medical report that was not referenced in the state’s charging affidavit states that Zimmerman sustained a broken nose, two black eyes, and two cuts on the back of his head.
The new forensic facts challenge the second-degree murder charge, which, to stick, requires a jury to be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman acted with malicious recklessness in causing Trayvon’s death, says Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard Law School professor whose criticisms of the prosecution stepped up as the state’s evidence was revealed.
Given the new evidence, “the prosecutor is at least guilty of willful blindness,” says Mr. Dershowitz in a phone interview.
The 200-plus pages of new documents also give more insight into the prosecution’s contention that Zimmerman may have profiled Trayvon in part because of his views of young black men. As one investigator writes, the whole fight could have been avoided if Zimmerman had afforded Trayvon, a fellow citizen who was doing nothing wrong in a place where he had the right to be, some respect.
“The encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin was ultimately avoidable by Zimmerman, if Zimmerman had remained in his vehicle and awaited the arrival of law enforcement, or conversely if he had identified himself to Martin as a concerned citizen and initiated dialog in an effort to dispel each party's concern," the report said. "There is no indication that Trayvon Martin was involved in any criminal activity at the time of the encounter."
“The police concluded that none of this would have happened if George Zimmerman hadn't gotten out of his car," Martin family attorney Ben Crump told the Associated Press on Thursday. "If George Zimmerman hadn't gotten out of his car, they say it was completely avoidable. That is the headline."
An anonymous police tipster, meanwhile, suggested that Zimmerman could be confrontational, especially against black people. Zimmerman, who is part-Hispanic, has been described by family members as a social activist who cared about minorities and the downtrodden.
"I don't at all know who this kid was or anything else,” the unnamed caller called told police shortly after the shooting. “But I know George, and I know that he does not like black people. He would start something. He's very confrontational. It's in his blood. We'll just say that.”
Moreover, one woman told police she heard no fighting before the gun shot rang out. At that point, she went outside and saw a man, Zimmerman, standing over Martin’s prone, face-down body. “Just call the police,” Zimmerman said, according to the witness.
Another witness told a different tale. According to the report, “He witnessed a black male, wearing a dark colored 'hoodie' on top of a white or Hispanic male who was yelling for help. He elaborated by stating the black male was mounted on the white or Hispanic male and throwing punches 'MMA [mixed martial arts] style.' He stated he yelled out to the two individuals that he was going to call the police. He then heard a 'pop.' He stated that after hearing the 'pop,' he observed the person he had previously observed on top of the other person (the black male wearing the 'hoodie') laid out on the grass."
“Based on this description, it doesn’t appear that Zimmerman ‘executed’ Martin, as some of the inflammatory rhetoric claims,” writes law professor William Jacobson at the Legal Insurrection blog. “It’s legally irrelevant that the encounter could have been avoided.”
After the shooting, Sanford police recommended that Zimmerman be charged with negligent manslaughter, but a state prosecutor instead accepted Zimmerman’s invocation of the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows a person to defend himself with deadly force in public areas, if he believes his life is in danger.
The failure to charge Zimmerman led to protests in Sanford and around the country, the stepping down of the local police chief, and allegations of racial injustice, causing Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) to appoint a special prosecutor to take another look at the case.
In April, six weeks after the shooting, that prosecutor, Ms. Corey, reversed the earlier decision, charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder. He’s currently out on a $150,000 bond and in hiding.
While many of the details of the shooting have already been publicized, the evidence released Thursday revealed new details likely to shade the as-yet-unscheduled trial.
Medical examiners found that Trayvon had THC, the euphoria-inducing compound found in marijuana, in his blood – a potentially salient fact given that Zimmerman told a dispatcher he thought the man he had spotted “was on drugs or something.”
Trayvon, who lived in Miami, was in Sanford with his dad to serve out a 10-day school suspension for possessing a baggie with marijuana residue. He was returning from buying an iced tea and some Skittles from a local convenience store when Zimmerman spotted him, called a nonemergency police dispatcher, and then followed him on foot.
Forensics also found that Trayvon was shot at extremely close range with a single shot, which entered his chest and perforated his heart.
The report also revealed the FBI findings from one of the most controversial tenets of the case: whether a voice that can be heard screaming for help during a 911 recording was Trayvon or Zimmerman. The FBI was unable to conclusively determine whom the voice belonged to, and was also unable to corroborate suggestions that, at one point, Zimmerman uttered a racial slur.
According to police, Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s dad, said he didn’t believe the voice crying for help belonged to his son. When asked, Officer Chris Serino wrote: "Mr. Martin, clearly emotionally impacted by the recording, quietly responded 'no.' "
The stakes in the case are high. It set off national introspection over so-called Stand Your Ground laws, which critics call “shoot first” laws. Zimmerman is likely to argue his use of that law in a special “mini-trial” to precede a jury trial, in which a judge can dismiss the case outright and shield Zimmerman from civil liability.
Others, meanwhile, worry what impact an acquittal or hung jury could have, sparking columnist Mansfield Frazier at the Daily Beast to suggest that the legal system has a responsibility to help avoid a “large scale racial calamity.”
Corey, the prosecutor, has said that public pressure in the case did not influence her decision to charge Zimmerman with murder.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys pleaded with Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester to allow redaction of witness names in the discovery file, because some of them have feared for their safety.
The redactions are unusual under Florida’s progressive “sunshine” law that constitutionally guarantees the public’s right to inspect prosecutorial evidence against citizens.
“We’re a nation that doesn’t like secret witnesses bringing cases against defendants,” says Charles Davis, a government transparency expert at the University of Missouri. “We wag our fingers at other countries that allow that."