Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Detour to Justice: The curious case of Trayvon Martin.

On Sunday 26th November 2012, the biggest stars in American basketball met at the Amway Centre in Orlando, Florida, for the 61st edition of the NBA All Star game. It was the first time since 2004 that an all star game was being played in the East Coast of the United States and the first time since 1992 that the state of Florida was playing host, so excitement among the local population was high.

Among those looking forward to the game was 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was spending time with his father and his father’s fiancée at the Retreat at Twin Lakes residential area of Sanford, twenty miles north of Orlando. A junior high school student in the Miami Dade district of South Florida, Trayvon had been suspended from school a few days earlier, and his father was keeping an eye on him.

Trayvon Martin

Approximately one hour before the game, which was scheduled to tip off at 7:30pm EST, Trayvon left the house, apparently to purchase a can of iced tea and a packet of skittles at a nearby convenience store and get back in time for the tip-off.

Right about the same time, George Zimmerman was driving along the Retreat at Twin Lakes streets on a personal errand. A long time citizen law enforcer and captain of the neighbourhood watch service, the 29-year old insurance underwriter carried a loaded Kel Tec .9mm semi-automatic handgun.

George Zimmerman

At precisely 7:00pm, the black teenager and the white Hispanic-American man crossed paths for the first time.

Thirty minutes later, as Andrew Bynum and Dwight Howard braced to tip off the All-Star game at the Amway Centre, Trayvon Martin lay face down a hundred yards from his father’s fiancée’s condo.

Lodged in his lifeless heart was a bullet from Zimmerman’s gun.

An unnecessary fatality: The ignonimous injustice of a death

When Trayvon did not come home by the early hours of 27th February, his worried father, Tracy Martin, called police to report him missing.

At around 8am, police officers from the Sanford Police Department arrived at his fiancée’s house with pictures of a young man who had been shot dead in the area the previous evening. The young man had been booked in the local hospital morgue as ‘John Doe’ as he had not been carrying identification at the time he was shot.

The pictures were those of Trayvon, eyes rolled back and mouth wide open in death.

The devastated father then asked about the circumstances of his son’s death, and learnt that the police were not only aware of the circumstances in detail, but also knew and had apprehended the killer, who had confessed to the killing. 

The news was welcome relief, albeit extremely scant relief, to Tracy Martin.

 But this relief lasted only until the police told him that due to some absurd Florida law which governs the use of lethal force in circumstances such as the one which resulted in his son’s death, the killer could not be charged with the killing.

The letter of the law: Stand Your Ground

The law cited by the Sanford Police Department to justify their failure to seek Zimmerman’s prosecution was a 2011 Florida Statute (Chapter 776) on Justifiable Use of Force, modelled on the so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ doctrine. In interpreting the law with regards to the fatal altercation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the police specifically leaned on three sections of the law:

  • Section 776.012(1) which states: ‘’...a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if...he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a      forcible felony.’’
  • Section 776.013(3) which states: ‘’ A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony,’’ and
  • Section 776.032(1) which states: ‘’A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force.’’
The police told Tracy Martin that Trayvon had approached Zimmerman twice. First, he walked up to Zimmerman’s vehicle and asked why he was following him, and Zimmerman denied following him. Trayvon then walked away and Zimmerman got out of his vehicle, only for Trayvon to approach him again from behind a building and ask, “What’s your problem, homie?” Zimmerman said he did not have a problem, and Trayvon attacked him. The altercation escalated, and being in reasonable fear of his life, Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon in self defence.

Tracy Martin was told that this account of events as told by Zimmerman was believable, and that since the police had not received any evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s account that he was acting in self defence, Florida law protected him for being prosecuted for the crime of killing Trayvon.

In simple terms, what the police were telling Tracy Martin was that the man who had killed his son was going to walk free, not only with the full knowledge, but also the full approval of the state justice system.

Profiles of a homicide: A matter of race?

Few things can match the sheer terror a parent goes through when he or she is unable to ascertain the whereabouts of their child. Establishing that a missing child was involved in a fatal altercation with a firearm-wielding vigilante most certainly ranks in the higher echelons among stuff that parental nightmares would be made of.

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, took these body blows and endured.

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton

But to be told that their innocent unarmed son’s unprovoked killing by an armed, semi-trained law enforcement volunteer would go unpunished was beyond what Tracy Martin and Seybrinah Fulton’s broken souls were able to take. That George Zimmerman would not even get to stand in front of a judge, and that this failure to account for his heinous action was perfectly legal, was too bitter a pill for the divorced couple to swallow.

Two things were immediately apparent to them. One, George Zimmerman would not have taken the extreme steps he took had Trayvon been white. And two, they were absolutely certain that the Sanford Police Department would have arrested Zimmerman and sought his prosecution in court had (a) Trayvon been white or (b) Zimmerman been black. Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were convinced that their son had been the victim of racial profiling, and that this had led to his death. 

Crudely put, Trayvon had been killed because he was black, and Zimmerman was going to escape prosecution because he was a white man accused of killing a black man.

So with a burning sense of injustice, the couple retained the services of a lawyer to pursue justice for their son.   

Self-Defence of the indefensible: Police on the spotlight

The lawyer Trayvon’s parents engaged was Benjamin Crump, a wrongful death, malpractice and civil rights attorney based in Tallahassee, Florida. Crump is most famous for his role in the 2006 Martin Anderson Case, where his litigation of the death of a 14-year-old black delinquent at a state-run boot camp led to a near-total overhaul of the state’s juvenile delinquency correctional practice.

Benjamin Crump

When Crump was first given the basics of Trayvon’s case, he was certain it was an open-and-shut case with the police. ‘’A civilian law enforcement volunteer with a gun shoots an unarmed teenager?’’ He asked.  ‘’He will be behind bars by the end of today. Just wait and see.’’

Only it didn’t happen that way, and when three days later the police had still done nothing, Crump decided it was time to yank the authorities’ chains until he got them to act.

He immediately set about collecting the facts of Trayvon’s case, and it didn’t take long for a very disturbing picture to emerge from myriad aspects of the police investigation, most of which either flew in the face of logic, or outright did not make sense. The most glaring of these aspects included:

  • Trayvon was booked at the morgue as a ‘John Doe’, a term used to refer to unidentified dead bodies placed in a morgue; yet he was killed less than a hundred yards from his home, and officers at the scene of his shooting did not make any efforts to establish his identity by asking neighbors and witnesses if they recognized him.
  • The initial police report on Trayvon's death, completed at 3:07 a.m. on Feb. 27, listed his full name, city of birth, address and phone number, yet Tracy Martin was not notified of his son's death until after he reported him missing the next morning.
  • According to what Zimmerman told officers at the scene of the crime, Trayvon felled him with a single blow to the face, jumped on him and started banging his head against the ground, forcing him to reach for his gun and shoot him at point-blank range. However, a closed circuit camera picture of Zimmerman entering the Sanford Police Station approximately 37 minutes after the shooting did not show any noticeable marks or bruises on him to indicate that he had suffered sufficient injury to warrant retaliation by lethal force.
  • When Zimmerman was taken to the police station, no drug or alcohol screen was carried out on him, despite such tests being standard procedure for all possible homicide investigations.
  •  Police also took Zimmerman at his word when he claimed that he had a ‘squeaky clean’ criminal record, and didn’t run a background check on him even after it later emerged that he was once arrested in 2005 on charges of resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer when interfering with the arrest of a friend.
  • After he questioned Zimmerman regarding Trayvon’s killing, the lead homicide investigator on the case, Chris Serino, recommended charging him with manslaughter. Serino even filed an affidavit saying he was unconvinced by Zimmerman's account, but the state attorney’s office told him there was not enough evidence to secure a conviction and directed that Zimmerman be released.
All this convinced Crump that the Sanford Police Department and the State Attorney’s Office had already decided that Zimmerman was justified in killing Trayvon Martin, and would not actively pursue any other leads, no matter how credible, that indicated otherwise.

The police however strenuously refuted these accusations, and insisted that they were standing by their actions in the investigation of Trayvon’s killing.

The lull before the storm

Next, Crump got together with a number of activists, including renowned civil rights activist Al Sharpton, and sought audience with the state attorney to urge a review of the case.

Al Sharpton

In the meantime, Velma Williams, a black commissioner with the Sanford City Commission, met and attempted to warn Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee of the possible consequences of inaction. ‘’Bill, there is a train coming towards you at 75 miles an hour.’’ She allegedly told the Sanford Police head during their meeting. ‘’Get in and engage the brakes before it hurtles out of control.’’

Bill Lee

Both Wolfinger and Lee promised that the matter would be exhaustively reviewed and necessary action taken, but forty-eight hours later, as Trayvon’s corpse began the seventh day of its eternal repose beneath the cold, hard soil of a Miami cemetery, Zimmerman remained a free man.

It was time, Crump decided, to up the ante.

A ray, a beam, and then came the floodlights.

With literally the biggest NBA stars in town, a black teenager’s killing getting extensive coverage in the local news would have been odd.

 It was therefore not in the least bit surprising that on the night of Trayvon’s shooting, all media outlets dedicated their prime slots to analyses of the All-Star game and the 151-149 Western Conference victory over the Eastern Conference. Trayvon’s shooting only got a few mentions in the local radio stations that night, and a short article in the next day’s Orlando Sentinel, Florida’s leading daily.

But with Benjamin Crump in the picture, this apathy was about to be transformed.

Being practically Florida’s best known black attorney, Crump had over the years developed an extensive network of contacts within both local and national media. He sat down with his team and formulated a media strategy, and then set about calling these contacts.

Initially, the news circulated exclusively within Florida. Then a few outlets in neighbouring Georgia picked up the story and on 9th March, the local bureau of CBS News, which has nationwide coverage, obtained an exclusive interview of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton arranged by Crump and forwarded the clip to their headquarters in New York.

The next day, the story was covered by ABC World News, and two days later, CNN also aired the story prime time. By then, a number of popular news websites, including The Huffington Post, The Young Turks, and, which is affiliated with NBC News, had also started to extensively cover the case.
Sybrina Fulton also launched a petition on calling for Zimmerman’s arrest, and with the case gaining national prominence, over 500,000 people signed the petition within a week.

Celebrities soon started to lend their voices to the petition. New York Knicks star forward Carmelo Anthony showed solidarity with the call by tweeting a picture of himself wearing a hoodie, and the entire Miami Heat team did the same. Eminent black personalities like Russell Simmons and Spike Lee called for Zimmerman’s arrest and expressed disappointment with the Sanford Police Department’s handling of the case.

As the momentum gathered, Velma Williams went back to police Chief Bill Lee. ‘’Remember when I told you to jump on the train going at 75 miles an hour and engage the brakes before it got out of hand? ‘’ She asked him.

‘’Yes.’’ Lee replied.

‘’Well, it’s going at 150 miles an hour now.’’ Williams said. ‘’And there are no brakes.’’

Last Calls: Portrait of a Murder

In the course of his inquiry into Trayvon’s case, one of the people Benjamin Crump had talked to was Trayvon’s 16-year-old girlfriend, whose identity currently remains secret to protect her privacy. By an amazing twist of fate, it emerged that the girl had called Trayvon a few minutes before his death, and had stayed on the phone with him until just a few seconds before he was fatally shot.

According to the girl, she had called Trayvon at approximately 7:12pm and he seemed agitated, saying that a strange man was following him. She said she had advised him to run, and after initially refusing to take the suggestion, he eventually elected to run. A couple of minutes later, she heard the beginning of what seemed like an argument between Trayvon and Zimmerman before the connection was terminated.

Records from the girl’s service provider corroborated her account of the conversation.

And then it emerged that at the exact same time Trayvon was on the phone with his girlfriend, Zimmerman had also been on the phone with a non-emergency police dispatcher, describing what appeared to be his deliberate pursuit of Trayvon. Police initially refused to release records of the conversation, but in the wake of unrelenting pressure from Crump, the transcripts were eventually released.

The girl’s account of her conversation with Trayvon had cast doubts on Zimmerman’s allegation that Trayvon was the aggressor, and that he had only shot him in self defence.

Transcript of Zimmerman’s call to non-emergency police dispatcher
Dispatcher:       Sanford Police Department. ...
Zimmerman:     Hey we've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood, and there's a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher:       OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman:     He looks black.
Dispatcher:       Did you see what he was wearing?
Zimmerman:     Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He's [unintelligible], he was just staring...
Dispatcher:       OK, he's just walking around the area...
Zimmerman:     Looking at all the houses.
Dispatcher:       OK...
Zimmerman:     Now he's just staring at me.
Dispatcher:       OK—you said it's 1111 Retreat View? Or 111?
Zimmerman:     That's the clubhouse...
Dispatcher:       That's the clubhouse, do you know what the—he's near the clubhouse right now?
Zimmerman:     Yah, now he's coming towards me.
Dispatcher:       OK.
Zimmerman:     He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.
Dispatcher:       How old would you say he looks?
Zimmerman:     He's got button on his shirt, late teens.
Dispatcher:       Late teens ok.
Zimmerman:     Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out, he's got something in his hands...I don't know what his deal is.
Dispatcher:       Just let me know if he does anything ok
Zimmerman:     How long until you get an officer over here?
Dispatcher:       Yeah we've got someone on the way; just let me know if this guy does anything else.
Zimmerman:     Okay. These assholes they always get away. When you come to the clubhouse you come straight in and make a left. Actually you would go past the clubhouse.
Dispatcher:       So it's on the left hand side from the clubhouse?
Zimmerman:     No you go in straight through the entrance and then you make a left...uh you go straight in, don't turn, and make a left. Shit he's running.
Dispatcher:       He's running? Which way is he running?
Zimmerman:     Down towards the other entrance to the neighbourhood.
Dispatcher:       Which entrance is that that he's heading towards?
Zimmerman:     The back entrance...fucking [disputed/unintelligible]
Dispatcher:       Are you following him?
Zimmerman:     Yeah
Dispatcher:       Ok, we don't need you to do that.
Zimmerman:     Ok
Dispatcher:       Alright sir what is your name?
Zimmerman:     George...He ran.
Dispatcher:       Alright George what's your last name?
Zimmerman:     Zimmerman
Dispatcher:       And George what's the phone number you're calling from?
Zimmerman:     [redacted]
Dispatcher:       Alright George we do have them on the way, do you want to meet with the officer when they get out there?
Zimmerman:     Alright, where you going to meet with them at?
Zimmerman:     If they come in through the gate, tell them to go straight past the club house, and uh, straight past the club house and make a left, and then they go past the mailboxes, that's my truck...[unintelligible]
Dispatcher:       What address are you parked in front of?
Zimmerman:     I don't know, it's a cut through so I don't know the address.
Dispatcher:       Okay do you live in the area?
Zimmerman:     Yeah, I... [Unintelligible]
Dispatcher:       What's your apartment number?
Zimmerman:     It's a home it's 1950, oh crap I don't want to give it all out, I don't know where this kid is.
Dispatcher:       Okay do you want to just meet with them right near the mailboxes then?
Zimmerman:     Yeah that's fine.
Dispatcher:       Alright George, I'll let them know to meet you around there okay?
Zimmerman:     Actually could you have them call me and I'll tell them where I'm at?
Dispatcher:       Okay, yeah that's no problem.
Zimmerman:     Should I give you my number or you got it?
Dispatcher:       Yeah I got it [redacted]
Zimmerman:     Yeah you got it.
Dispatcher:       Okay no problem, I'll let them know to call you when you're in the area.
Zimmerman:     Thanks.
Dispatcher:       You're welcome.

The backlash begins

With the release of Zimmerman’s call record to the police, attention on the Trayvon Martin case surged. Sybrina Fulton’s petition received a million new signatures overnight, and civil rights activists all over the country began organizing ‘Million Hoodie March’ demonstrations to call for Zimmerman’s arrest.

On March 20, the US (Federal) Justice Department announced that they were opening investigations into the incident. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) also announced that they were looking into whether Trayvon’s constitutional rights had been violated, and the Florida state governor, Rick Scott, announced that he had written to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement asking them to investigate the shooting.

On March 21, 2012, three out of the five members of the Sanford city commission, including the Mayor, passed a motion of no confidence in regards to the police chief Bill Lee and his handling of the case. The following day, Lee announced that he had temporarily stepped down from his position as chief of police, stating "my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process."

Later on the same day, Norm Wolfinger also rescued himself from the case. Governor Scott announced that he was appointing Angela Corey, State attorney for the neighbouring Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, to be Special Prosecutor and that she would be investigating the case instead of Wolfinger.

Angela Corey

On April 11, 45 days after Trayvon was killed and 20 days after her appointment as special prosecutor in the case, Angela Corey announced that George Zimmerman would be arraigned in court on charges of second degree murder for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Detour to justice: The Mishandling of a homicide investigation

On May 29th 2012, George Zimmerman will stand in front of Judge Jessica Recksiedler in a courtroom in Seminole, Florida, and enter a Not Guilty plea to the second degree murder charge levied against him. Afterwards, there will be a legal process, maybe short but most probably long and drawn out, to determine whether he is criminally responsible for the death of Trayvon Martin.

Presumption of innocence is, without equivocation, the most fundamental pillar of criminal jurisprudence. So long as there exists any doubt on the question of criminal responsibility, an accused person shall not be convicted of a crime until evidence is produced to dispel this doubt. Presumption of innocence, along with the guarantee of a fair trial, are entitlements Zimmerman has a right to claim and receive.

In the court of public opinion, however, Zimmerman has already been judged and his sentence passed. Most black people with an opinion on the case have already convicted him, most notably Mike Tyson who wondered why Zimmerman has not been shot yet and the New Black Panther party which placed a $10,000 bounty on his head; while a majority of white respondents to a survey expressed their belief that Zimmerman really was acting in self defence when he shot Trayvon Martin.

Mike Tyson

To a great extent, perceptions and opinions on the case are based on the portrayal of the story in the media and what some perceive to be ‘excessive’ coverage of the case.

An oft-cited complaint by Supporters of Zimmerman has been that the most widely-used photos in the media, which showed Martin as a "baby-faced boy" and Zimmerman as a beefy-looking figure, were outdated and may have helped shape initial public perceptions of the deadly shooting. NBC also came under severe criticism after it aired an edited version of Zimmerman’s call to the police which improperly painted Zimmerman as a racial profiler, and this has raised the question of whether he will receive a fair trial.

Benjamin Crump obviously disagrees with these sentiments. “This case needed the media” he stresses, pointing out that had it not been for such unrelenting pressure from the fourth estate, the killing of Trayvon Martin would never have been exhaustively investigated.

And this opinion, that the case was not properly investigated, is shared by many prominent African-American personalities.

President Barack Obama

"Obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what (Trayvon’s) parents are going through," President Barack Obama said on 23rd March, after the Justice Department announced it was looking into the case. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon...and I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this."

Every person suspected of a crime is entitled to presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond reasonable doubt. However, every victim is also entitled to a thorough investigation of a crime committed against them, and for the likely perpetrator of the crime to be subjected to due process of the law and sanctions if guilt is proven.

Responding to early to criticisms of the investigation, police Chief Bill Lee vehemently defended the department. "In this case Mr. Zimmerman has made the statement of self-defence, and until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him." Lee initially said, adding that had George Zimmerman the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb. 26, he'd probably do things differently, and so would Trayvon.

Yet at the time, police were already in possession of witness statements from neighbours who had seen the incident first hand, as well as records of the damning call Zimmerman had made to the police. When these were presented to Judge Mark Herr along with an affidavit from the prosecution, it took him less than a minute to rule that there was probable cause to mount a prosecution.

Only two people can tell exactly what exactly happened that night, and one of them is dead while the other's account is being called to question. Bill Lee was right. Had Trayvon Martin known he was going to die, or had George Zimmerman known he would become the lightning rod for such an outpouring of hate, they both would have done thins differently on the night of February 26th 2012.

But Trayvon and Zimmerman are not the only ones who should have done things differently.

Speaking after Zimmerman's arrest had been announced, Sybrina Fulton voiced in a few words what was the central message of the 'Justice for Trayvon' campaign. "We just want people to know that if you shoot someone that is unarmed, you should be arrested." She said. "The evidence can play out once you get to court, but you should be arrested.”

Amen to that.

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