Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman Case - My Take

There is a lot of controversy these days concerning the Trayvon Martin shooting by George Zimmerman back in February. The more the case goes on the worse the hateful rhetoric gets. Originally the demands were for a thorough investigation of the incident by someone other than the Sanford, Florida, police so Zimmerman could be properly arrested and charged. Now it has escalated to celebrity involvement on the side of Martin, the FBI looking into the case and the New Black Panthers offering a $10,000 reward to anyone who captures Zimmerman and turns them over to the NBP. The head of the New Black Panthers has even stated that Zimmerman “should be afraid for his life.”

President Obama recently weighed in saying “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon. “I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” he said. “And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this; and that everybody pulls together — federal, state and local — to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened.”

This is one of the few times I agree with what the President said. I think it’s imperative that we investigate every aspect of this; that everybody pulls together to figure out exactly how this tragedy happened. A 17 year old kid is dead. It’s definitely a tragedy.

Since I have an opinion on the subject and this is my blog, I thought I’d write that opinion down. I’ve expressed part of it to some people already and have received a variety of responses. Martin supporters tell me I’m probably close to the truth except that Zimmerman killed Martin just because he was black. Zimmerman supporters tell me I’m being too judgmental of Zimmerman and that the kid was at fault because he assaulted Zimmerman. My theory lies somewhere in the middle. Based on the articles I’ve read and the things I’ve seen and heard in the media, here’s how I see it:

Here is what we know.

1. George Zimmerman, a 28 year old white Hispanic, was performing self-appointed neighborhood watch duties in his neighborhood. He was armed with a 9mm hand gun. He was not part of an officially sanctioned neighborhood watch program.
2. Zimmerman called 911 and reported a “suspicious guy” in his neighborhood and said he was going to check him out. Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin, a 17 year old black male.
3. Zimmerman was advised by the police dispatcher not to follow Martin but to let police handle the situation.
4. During the 911 call, there has been speculation that Zimmerman uttered the racial slur, under his breath, "f*king coons" after he tells the dispatcher that Martin was heading towards the back entrance of the complex. Zimmerman also allegedly says "these a**holes always get away."
5. Not long afterward, Martin was dead and Zimmerman was claiming he shot Martin in self defense.
6. The Sanford police accepted Zimmerman’s story and did not arrest Zimmerman citing the “Stand Your Ground” law in the State of Florida by which, no one has to retreat if threatened and deadly force is allowable.

Further investigation has revealed that at some point Zimmerman and Martin made face to face contact and a physical altercation occurred between them. Witnesses say they observed Martin on top of Zimmerman punching him and banging Zimmerman’s head on the ground. Zimmerman was apparently crying out for help. Soon afterward a gunshot rang out and Trayvon Martin was dead.
Martin’s girlfriend, who says she was on the phone with Martin at the time, says he told her someone was following him and that Martin, at some point, asked “Why are you following me?” The phone became disconnected a few seconds later but the girl says it sounded like there was a struggle.

In my humble opinion, the one question not answered yet (at least I haven’t seen it) is what, exactly, happened the moment Zimmerman and Martin came together face to face? Zimmerman says he lost sight of Martin and was headed back to his vehicle and that Martin approached him from behind and assaulted him by punching him in the nose. Zimmerman says he went down from the blow and that Martin got on top of him and started banging his head into the ground. Zimmerman says he felt Martin go for his gun and he (Zimmerman) got it first and, in fear for his own life, shot Martin.

I’m not a cop. I’ve never worked on the street as a police officer. I spent 22 years working in prisons with convicted felons. I have a good idea how the criminal mind works and I have a good idea how the ego can make people do things they otherwise would not do. So here’s my version of the events as I see them. I’m not convicting anyone – this is merely what I think. I’m more than happy to let a grand jury decide if there’s evidence enough to go to trial and I’m glad I’m not in the jury pool.

1. Zimmerman was on his self-appointed neighborhood watch, armed, and was feeling like the beat cop in the neighborhood.
2. Zimmerman sees Trayvon Martin walking through his neighborhood – a black teenager Zimmerman doesn’t recognize. Right away he’s suspicious and calls 911.
3. The 911 operator isn’t reacting to Zimmerman’s call quickly enough – the kid is getting away. Zimmerman decides to follow him to see where he’s going and what he’s up to. Feeling bolstered by the gun he’s carrying, Zimmerman is going to play cop. (Remember – this is my blog and my opinion.) He tells the operator he’s following on foot to which she responds “We don’t need you to do that.”
4. At some point while Zimmerman is following Martin they get close enough to exchange words. No one seems to know when, exactly, that was and what was said initially. Did Martin surprise Zimmerman by attacking him first or did Zimmerman approach Martin acting as if he had authority and Martin, instead of backing down in fear, became aggressive in return? No witness has yet to fill in that blank and Martin isn’t talking.
5. An altercation ensues with Martin getting the best of Zimmerman to the point where Zimmerman becomes afraid for his own safety.
6. Zimmerman pulls his gun and shoots Martin, killing him and ending the situation.
7. Zimmerman knows the only way he can possibly justify the shooting is to claim self defense under the “Stand Your Ground” law and says Martin attacked him without provocation.

I’ve had people disagree with me about the following points and I’m not sure why.

1. Participants in the neighborhood watch program are prohibited (by the program) from carrying firearms while performing their duties – even if they’re licensed to carry (as Zimmerman was.)
2. Participants in the neighborhood watch program are not supposed to engage anyone they feel is suspicious – merely call the police and report it. They are not supposed to get out of their vehicle and follow the “suspect” on foot.
3. Muttering alleged racial remarks and “They always get away” into the phone while following Martin on foot leads one to believe there was something personal in it for Zimmerman.
4. Zimmerman said Martin was headed for the back exit of the complex. If he’d have gone through that exit he’d have been out of the neighborhood and Zimmerman’s suspect would have no longer been a problem.
5. Pointing out things Zimmerman did that were in violation of the standard operating procedures for neighborhood watch is not finding him guilty. It’s merely pointing out the very obvious.
6. There have been incidents in the last decade in which members of the black community felt the Sanford police were not dealing fairly with the black community. From the Washington Post:

“Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. acknowledged the problems on Friday. “The issues that have been brought to my attention regarding the black community and the Sanford police department go back 10 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.” Bonaparte noted Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. took over the department less than a year ago and said he had made improvements but added, “Certainly that has changed as of right now in terms of the relationship between the black community and the Sanford police department.” Turner Clayton Jr., president of the Seminole County’s NAACP, agreed. “There is no trust,” he said. “There is no confidence.”

So there it is – that’s what I think happened. Did Zimmerman shoot in self-defense because he was attacked or did he simply encounter someone who wasn’t afraid of him, begin losing a fight he instigated, and shoot Martin because he became afraid? I think the latter. If you start an incident with someone that turns into a fight and then you start losing the fight and pull a gun – is that self defense or manslaughter? Again, I think the latter.

There is at least one mental health professional who has weighed in on this and he seems to agree with me: “Dr. Laurence Miller, a Palm Beach County clinical psychologist who works with local police agencies, said he believes Zimmerman likely was acting out the “whole TV cop role in his head” when he confronted Trayvon. “A lot of people like the power and control that law enforcement officers have but with that comes a tremendous amount of responsibility,” Miller said, pointing out that a police officer is the only profession that can use “coercive physical force” or lethal force to subdue a suspected criminal. “People act like cowboys and like the power, but not the responsibility.”

Miller could be simply an attention seeking doctor but he seems to have the same theory as I – that Zimmerman was acting with a cop mentality without a cop’s authority.

Of course, we could all be wrong and the events could have happened exactly as George Zimmerman said. He could have started to follow Martin, lost sight of him, and then was brutally attacked by surprise when he was returning to his vehicle. But I don’t believe that. I don’t believe it was that simple and that one-sided. Martin wasn't a squeaky clean angel who never got into trouble. But then again, neither is Zimmerman. I don't think Martin deserved to die.

I don’t believe Zimmerman intended to kill Trayvon Martin when he got out of his vehicle after calling 911. I believe he pushed an issue too far and it came back to bite him. He got to a point where he thought he was going to get the bad end of a problem he caused and pulled a gun. Call me a skeptic or accuse me of judging Zimmerman but I go with my gut instinct. And it’s very often correct.

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