The arrest of Florida’s George Zimmerman for allegedly pointing and cocking a shotgun at his new girlfriend is raising troubling questions about whether the former neighborhood watch volunteer has deeper issues around judgment and violence that the Florida justice system ultimately overlooked in acquitting him of murdering Trayvon Martin.
Appearing at the same Seminole County courthouse where he was tried this summer, Mr. Zimmerman on Tuesday posted $9,000 bail, agreeing to wear an electronic monitoring anklet and give up his four guns. In court, prosecutors also alleged that Zimmerman choked his girlfriend a week earlier, an incident she didn't report at the time.
The shooting of Trayvon during a scuffle with Zimmerman on Feb. 26, 2012, riveted America with implications about race and about the impact of strengthened gun and self-defense rights. Trayvon was unarmed, carrying only a soda, candy, and some cash, when Zimmerman spotted him, identified him as a potential burglar, and followed him.
Zimmerman’s character became a driving force behind the racially polarized debate over Trayvon’s death: Was the 20-something aspiring prosecutor a hero by standing up to “wannabe thugs,” as many posited; or, as prosecutors said, was he a “wannabe cop” with a history of violence, who precipitated the encounter and then killed Trayvon “because he could.”
President Obama urged the nation to use the acquittal of Zimmerman as a spark for dinner-table “soul-searching” about guns and race.
Instead, much of the post-verdict news-media focus has been on Zimmerman’s troubled journey from obscurity to national poster boy – and whether, given his subsequent domestic violence problems, the jury got the verdict right.
A central question of the trial, after all, was the extent to which Zimmerman precipitated the encounter by confronting Trayvon on a rainy night in a Sanford, Fla., condo complex.
“This arrest [Monday] should be a lesson to those who went willingly to the side that Zimmerman was not an aggressive actor, given that it’s uncommon to have revealed repeatedly that someone is a sort of serially aggressive person with anger management issues after they’ve been acquitted of a murder charge,” says George Ciccariello-Maher, a political science professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Since the verdict this summer, Zimmerman has become embroiled in a series of publicized mini-scandals, including an argument with his father-in-law that may have involved a gun (the father-in-law never pressed charges); an unfriendly divorce from his wife, Shellie; and, now, his arrest for aggravated assault – allegedly raising and cocking a loaded shotgun toward his girlfriend during a heated breakup argument.
Zimmerman told police and a 911 dispatcher that he never raised a gun and that his girlfriend had gone “crazy.”
“He knows how to play this game,” the girlfriend, Samantha Scheibe, told a 911 dispatcher.
The jury this summer, in the end, looked beyond Zimmerman's character simply focused on the encounter between the man and the teenager. An animated video allowed by the judge showed Trayvon coming up to Zimmerman and throwing a haymaker that put the shorter but much heavier man on his back. Zimmerman, who suffered some lacerations, said he was afraid for his life as Trayvon straddled him and beat him, and he pulled out the gun and shot Trayvon after he thought the teenager was reaching for the gun.
“The jury, given the evidence presented and looking only at that incident as opposed to other behaviors of his, came to the right verdict,” says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “The rest of us have the benefit now of hindsight and foresight surrounding the trial. [But] we are not bound by rule of evidence, nor do we have to follow ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ when we pass our own judgments.”
Zimmerman had had a previous restraining order against him from a previous girlfriend, and he had once been arrested for allegedly attacking a police officer. But these encounters, which did not end in convictions, were not in evidence in the Martin case.
Moreover, in court he conspired with his wife to lie about the couple’s finances, which led to the arrest of his wife but also, ultimately, the ousting of a judge, Kenneth Lester. A three-judge panel found that Judge Lester drew unfair conclusions about Zimmerman’s character.
Before being dismissed, Lester wrote in a bail order that "under any definition, [Zimmerman] has flouted the system" and "tried to manipulate the system when he has been presented the opportunity to do so."
While Zimmerman’s post-verdict brushes with the law do raise questions about the jury verdict, says Professor Ciccariello-Maher, a more poignant message may be about how some Americans continue to see Trayvon, a tough-looking black youth, as the aggressor, despite evidence, including Monday’s arrest, that allegedly suggests Zimmerman has a proclivity for using guns to make a point.
Many of those supporters, who contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward his defense, have defended Zimmerman’s post-verdict incidents, suggesting instead that the media should be implicated for continuing to gin up baseless stories about him.
That impulse to excuse Zimmerman’s behavior suggests that “we don’t really want to understand what’s going on systematically in our country; we would rather not know,” Ciccariello-Maher says.
After the trial, Attorney General Eric Holder, whose civil rights division continues to investigate Zimmerman, claimed the gun used to shoot Trayvon as federal evidence, meaning it was not returned to Zimmerman. Nevertheless, Zimmerman currently has four weapons, according to the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and retains a concealed-weapons permit.