The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained

An undated photo of Trayvon Martin Courtesy Martin family

Adam Weinstein, Mother Jones

March 18, 2012

How did a kid armed with Skittles and an ice tea get gunned down by an overeager neighborhood watch captain? And why didn’t police detain shooter George Zimmerman?

On the evening of February 26, Trayvon Martin—an unarmed 17-year-old African American student—was confronted, shot, and killed near his home by George Zimmerman, a Latino neighborhood watch captain in the Orlando, Florida, suburb of Sanford. Zimmerman has not been charged with a crime. Since Martin’s death and the release of more details, the case has garnered national media attention and sparked a host of public debates over racial tensions, vigilantism, police practices, and gun laws.

What happened to Trayvon?

Martin, a Miami native, was visiting his father in Sanford and watching the NBA All-Star game at a house in a gated Sanford community, the Retreat at Twin Lakes. At halftime, Martin walked out to the nearby 7-Eleven to get some Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea. On his return trip, he drew the attention of Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in a sport-utility vehicle and called 911 to report “a real suspicious guy.”

“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher. “It’s raining, and he’s just walking around looking about.” The man tried to explain where he was. “Now he’s coming towards me. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male…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…These assholes, they always get away.”

After discussing his location with the dispatcher, Zimmerman exclaimed, “Shit he’s running,” and the following sounds suggest he left his vehicle to run after Martin.

“Are you following him?” the dispatcher asked. Zimmerman replied: “Yep.”

“Okay, we don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher warned.

Several minutes later, according to other callers to 911 in the neighborhood, Zimmerman and Martin got into a wrestling match on the ground. One of the pair could be heard screaming for help. Then a single shot rang out, and Martin lay dead.

Are the 911 recordings available to the public?

Yes. After public pressure, the city of Sanford played the tapes for Martin’s family, then released the audio recordings. Here are some excerpts.

What happened to the shooter?

So far, not much. Zimmerman told police he’d acted in self-defense. ABC News reports that he had wanted to be a police officer, and Sanford police didn’t test him for drugs or alcohol after the shooting (such tests are standard practice in homicide investigations). He was licensed to carry his gun, and police initially told Martin’s father that they hadn’t pressed charges because Zimmerman was a criminal justice student with a “squeaky clean” record.

That wasn’t entirely true, however; in 2005, Zimmerman was arrested for “resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer”; those charges were dropped. Media investigations and Martin family attorneys suggest that Zimmerman was a vigilante with “a false sense of authority” in search of young black men in his neighborhood. Police records show Zimmerman had called 911 a total of 46 times between Jan. 1 and the day he shot Martin. (Florida guidelines for licensed gun owners state: “A license to carry a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman.”)

How are Florida’s self-defense and “stand your ground” laws key to this case?

Zimmerman may have benefited from some of the broadest firearms and self-defense regulations in the nation. In 1987, then-Gov. Bob Martinez (R) signed Florida’s concealed carry provision into law, which “liberalized the restrictions that previously hindered the citizens of Florida from obtaining concealed weapons permits,” according to one legal analyst. This trendsetting “shall-issue” statute triggered a wave of gun-carry laws in other states. (Critics said at the time that Florida would become “Dodge City.”) Permit holders are also exempted from the mandatory state waiting period on handgun purchases.

Even though felons and other violent offenders are barred from getting a weapons permit, a 2007 investigation by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel found that licenses had been mistakenly issued to 1,400 felons and hundreds more applicants with warrants, domestic abuse injunctions, or gun violations. (More than 410,000 Floridians have been issued concealed weapons permits). Since then, Florida also passed a law permitting residents to keep guns in their cars at work, against employers’ wishes. The state also nearly allowed guns on college campuses last year, until an influential Republican lawmaker fought the bill after his close friend’s daughter was killed by an AK-47 brandished at a Florida State University fraternity party.

Sign the petition that calls for the arrest and prosecution of Trayvon’s killer. Almost 500,000 people have signed thus far.

Florida also makes it easy to plead self-defense in a killing. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, the state in 2005 passed a broad “stand your ground” law, which allows Florida residents to use deadly force against a threat without attempting to back down from the situation. (More stringent self-defense laws state that gun owners have “a duty to retreat” before resorting to killing.) In championing the law, former NRA president and longtime Florida gun lobbyist Marion Hammer said: “Through time, in this country, what I like to call bleeding heart criminal coddlers want you to give a criminal an even break, so that when you’re attacked, you’re supposed to turn around and run, rather than standing your ground and protecting yourself and your family and your property.”

Again, the Sunshine State was the trendsetter: 17 states have since passed “stand your ground” laws, which critics call a “license to kill” or a “shoot first” law. The law has been unpopular with law enforcement officers in Florida, since it makes it much more difficult to charge shooters with a crime and has regularly confounded juries in murder cases; many Orlando-area cops reportedly have given up investigating “self-defense” cases as a result, referring them to the overloaded state attorney’s office for action. A 2010 study by the Tampa Bay Times found that “justifiable homicides” had tripled in the state since the law went into effect.

Why is the history of the Sanford Police Department in question?

Sanford PD’s officers have suffered a series of public missteps in recent years, according to local reporters. In 2006, two private security guards—the son of a Sanford police officer, and a volunteer for the department—killed a black teen with a single gunshot in his back. Even though they admitted to never identifying themselves, the guards were released without charges. In 2009, after an assailant allegedly attempted to rape a child in her home, the department was called to task for sitting on the suspect’s fingerprints, delaying identification and pursuit of the attacker.

Perhaps the most significant incident occurred in late 2010: Justin Collison, the son of a Sanford PD lieutenant, sucker-punched a homeless black man outside a bar, but officers on the scene released Collison without charges. He eventually surrendered after video of the incident materialized online. The police chief at the time ultimately was forced into retirement. “Bottom line, we didn’t do our job that night,” a police department representative told WFTV of the incident. The TV station later learned that the Sanford patrol sergeant in charge on the night of Collison’s assault, Anthony Raimondo, was also the first supervisor on the scene of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death.

As a result of these incidents and their initial handling of Martin’s death, the Sanford police department has been under increased scrutiny. Martin’s parents have suggested they might call for Police Chief Bill Lee to resign.

What has been the reaction to the case?

The case garnered national attention thanks in large part to the reporting of Huffington Post‘s Trymaine Lee, who kept on the story since it broke. It caught major national media attention last week, when the police tapes were released, and the New York Times Charles M. Blow and The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that the case deserved greater scrutiny. Celebrities like Russell Simmons, John Legend, and Jamelle Monae have taken to social media to comment on the case. A petition at was recently posted demanding that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the local state attorney, and Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee prosecute Martin’s killer. The petition currently has more than 350,000 signatures, and had been averaging more than 10,000 signatures per hour.

The local state attorney’s office, which has the option of pursuing a case against Zimmerman, said this weekend that it received so many emails—more than 100,000—demanding prosecution, that the office’s servers temporarily shut down.

Sign the petition that calls for the arrest and prosecution of Trayvon’s killer. Almost 500,000 people have signed thus far.

Has anything like this happened before?

The case bears faint echoes of the death of 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson, whose case gripped Florida for nearly a year in 2006. Anderson, an African American who was attending a boot-camp-style detention center run by the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, died during physical training that January; the initial autopsy said he’d died of complications from sickle-cell anemia. But after civil rights groups alleged bias by the white officers running the camp, further investigation revealed Anderson had been physically abused and forced to inhale ammonia.

The boot-camp officers were eventually acquitted of manslaughter at trial, but Florida lawmakers shut down the boot camps, and incoming Gov. Charlie Crist signed an order paying $5 million to Anderson’s family. The commissioner of Florida’s top law enforcement agency, was ultimately forced to resign after making racially insensitive remarks in connection with the case.

Could the federal government step in?

That’s a distinct possibility. Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the Martin family, has written a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting federal involvement. “I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department and there’s no way that I can still trust them in investigating this crime,” said Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, said in a Friday news conference.

ABC News contacted an FBI spokesman who said, “We are aware of the incident, we have been in contact with local authorities and are monitoring the matter.” A representative of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, which usually investigates police matters, declined to comment on the case to Reuters Sunday.

If the state attorney’s office declines to file charges against Zimmerman, that means federal authorities might step in to file any number of charges, including a hate crime. They might also investigate allegations of police misconduct, including a charge by one eyewitness that an officer on the scene of Martin’s shooting told her to change her story. The witness says she stated that Martin had been screaming for help before he was shot, but that the officer “corrected” her and insisted it was Zimmerman who’d called for help, according to ABC News.

Have the governor or attorney general said what they’ll do?

So far, neither Gov. Rick Scott nor Attorney General Pam Bondi, both pro-Second Amendment conservatives, have referred publicly to Martin’s death. Nor has Jeb Bush, the ex-governor who signed the controversial stand-your-ground law, gone on record about the case. But Bush is slated to appear with the Rev. Al Sharpton on an upcoming episode of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, and it’s likely he’ll be asked his thoughts on Trayvon Martin’s killing then.

Sign the petition that calls for the arrest and prosecution of Trayvon’s killer. Almost 500,000 people have signed thus far.

UPDATE 1, 12 p.m. EDT, Monday, March 19: Many readers have asked whether, given the 911 recordings, a case against Zimmerman would be easier than most homicides in which “self-defense” is cited by a defendant. In Florida, the answer probably is no: The courts’ interpretation of the stand-your-ground law has been extremely broad—so broad that, to win an acquittal, a defendant doesn’t even have to prove self-defense, only argue for it, while to win a conviction the prosecution has to prove that self-defense was impossible.

Numerous cases have set the precedent in Florida, with the courts arguing that the law “does not require defendant to prove self-defense to any standard measuring assurance of truth, exigency, near certainty, or even mere probability; defendant’s only burden is to offer facts from which his resort to force could have been reasonable.” When a defendant claims self-defense, “the State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defense.” In other words the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt never shifts from the prosecution, so it’s surprisingly easy to evade prosecution by claiming self-defense.

This has led to some stunning verdicts in the state. In Tallahassee in 2008, two rival gangs engaged in a neighborhood shootout, and a 15-year-old African American male was killed in the crossfire. The three defendants all either were acquitted or had their cases dismissed, because the defense successfully argued they were defending themselves under the “stand your ground” law. The state attorney in Tallahassee, Willie Meggs, was beside himself. “Basically this law has put us in the posture that our citizens can go out into the streets and have a gun fight and the dead person is buried and the survivor of the gun fight is immune from prosecution,” he said at the time.

One of those defendants ended up receiving a conviction for attempted voluntary manslaughter for an unrelated case, in which he shot indiscriminately at two people in a car.

UPDATE 2, 4 p.m. Monday, March 19: In a press conference today, White House spokesman Jay Carney answered a question about the Martin shooting for the first time. “We here in the White House are aware of the incident, and we understand that the local FBI office has been in contact with the local authorities and is monitoring the situation,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin’s family, but obviously we’re not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter.”  Video

Meanwhile Monday, demonstrators gathered in support of Martin at the Seminole County courthouse and the Tallahassee campus of Florida A&M University, a historically black institution. Groups at the Seminole County rally reportedly chanted “Do I look suspicious?” and “Arrest Zimmerman now.” George Zimmerman’s father wrote in a letter the Orlando Sentinel that his son has moved out of the neighborhood where he shot Trayvon Martin. “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth,” he wrote. “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.”

But Martin’s mother and her attorney disputed that assertion on TV Monday morning. “[Zimmerman] was reacting to the color of his skin,” the mother, Sybrina Fulton, told NBC’s Matt Lauer. “I just don’t understand why this situation got out of control.” Her lawyer, Benjamin Crump, added: “Trayvon had a bag of Skittles. [Zimmerman] had a nine-millimeter gun. He was almost 80 pounds more weight than Trayvon Martin…Everyone in America is asking, ‘When are they going to arrest Zimmerman for killing this kid in cold blood?'”


Sign the petition that calls for the arrest and prosecution of Trayvon’s killer. Almost 500,000 people have signed thus far.

About Pat Donworth, D.Min.

I express myself as teacher, writer, and consciousness explorer. These driving interests have manifested in my work/service as a university and hospital chaplain; a book and magazine writer/editor, and teacher and workshop leader. I designed this blog to be a portal that points to and assists awakening souls to implement, and make practical, the changes that will usher in a new world based on unity, compassion, and collaboration.
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1 Response to The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained

  1. Pingback: The Trayvon Martin Killing, Explained | Activist Awake « 2012 Indy Info – LRC

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