Trayvon Martin's Killer Was Looking for Trouble—and Found It

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Examining the details and unanswered questions that will come to light when the case goes to court next month.  

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The neighborhood where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death. Reuters

Update 5:20 p.m. We've just learned from the Sanford Police that there is evidently a typo on the first page of the neighborhood watch calls report they provided. The date range of Zimmerman's calls, they say, evidently is 2001-2012, not 2011-2012, which means his 46 calls came over a 10- to 11-year period -- roughly four calls per year -- and not four calls per month as the initial police statistics revealed. That certainly changes my early analysis on that issue -- but only slightly. The defense would say that 4 calls a year to dispatch is reasonable. Prosecutors would say that 46 calls is still an awful lot and that making all those calls year in and year out might have heightened Zimmerman's frustration/obsession with people he deemed "suspicious."


My colleagues James Fallows and Ta-Nehisi Coates have written extensively about the senseless killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17-year-old, who was shot to death last month in a Florida neighborhood by its "watch captain." Martin, who weighed 100 pounds less than the older man who killed him, was walking home alone in the rain from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. Please keep reading Jim and Ta-Nehisi for their insights into this story. Here's my first take on some of the legal issues involved:

When a Seminole County grand jury (of at least 15 members) convenes next month to determine whether state charges should be laid against George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26, the jurors will likely focus upon the 911 tapes. They are the best evidence of Zimmerman's state of mind in the months -- and minutes -- leading up to his tragic confrontation with Martin. Zimmerman's mental state, in turn, is a crucial element in determining whether he may rely upon Florida's dubious "Stand Your Ground" statute to keep himself out of prison.

From January 2011 until the night of the shooting, a period of roughly 13 months, Zimmerman called 911 for one reason or another an astounding 46 times. This official record alone, a sharp prosecutor might suggest to Seminole County grand jurors, indicates a pattern of unreasonable assertiveness (and perhaps even paranoia) on the part of the 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain. At a minimum, the calls reveal that Zimmerman took his job as a local busybody more seriously than most of us ever would or could. On January 29, 2012, for example, he called the cops on a group of kids just "playing in the street."

On Tuesday, Florida officials released audio and transcripts from six more of the Zimmerman tapes. Together, they portray a man on the lookout for "suspicious characters" -- a man out looking for trouble, an earnest prosecutor might say to grand jurors. On October 1, 2011, for example, Zimmerman called 911 to report that two black men were "just hanging out" at the gate of his neighborhood. "I have no idea what they're doing," Zimmerman told the dispatcher, as if this fact alone justified the intervention of the police. Neighbors say Zimmerman had a false sense of authority over his volunteer role -- and you can almost hear that in the tapes.

THE 911 CALL

But it is Zimmerman's chilling 911 call on the night of the killing, at a time when he was again patrolling the streets looking for trouble, which has both transformed this story into international news and weakened his "justifiable homicide" defense. The controversial Florida law protects from prosecution someone who uses deadly force if that person "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." I have italicized the many words in that clause that grand jurors will have to confront head-on to resolve this case.

That's why there are so many "justifiable homicides" in Florida--dead men don't testify

On the night of Martin's death, Zimmerman called 911 to report Martin as "a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something." A good prosecutor might stop here briefly and ask the Seminole County grand jury whether it was reasonable for Zimmerman to come to these conclusions. But then, in the 911 narrative, Martin runs away from Zimmerman, and Zimmerman starts to chase him despite a plea from the 911 dispatcher not to do so. If Zimmerman had shot Martin at this point, chasing him down, is there any reasonable grand juror who would conclude that Zimmerman is immune from prosecution?

"These assholes. They always get away," Zimmerman told the dispatcher just before he killed Martin. By establishing evidence of an aggressive state of mind, by creating a vigilante-type motive on the part of Zimmerman, this statement arguably vitiates the language of the statute that permits the use of deadly force only when a person "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm." In other words, a prosecutor might tell Seminole County grand jurors, the "Stand Your Ground" provision is designed only to protect innocent bystanders left with no choice but to shoot.

Since the shooting, Zimmerman has said that he was attacked from behind by Martin. The Miami Herald reported that "Zimmerman said he had stepped out of his truck to check the name of the street he was on when Trayvon attacked him from behind as he walked back to his truck, police said. He said he feared for his life and fired the semiautomatic handgun he was licensed to carry because he feared for his life." If this story is true, if Martin attacked him from behind, Zimmerman likely would be shielded by the Florida law -- no matter how overzealous he had been before in chasing down a fleeing Martin.

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Left: Reuters; Right: AP

THE CONFLICTS

But even if Zimmerman's story is true, it doesn't mean that grand jurors would be excused from evaluating whether his fear of Martin was reasonable at the time of the alleged "attack." The statute's test is an objective one, not a subjective one. So why did Zimmerman fear for his life from the smaller man? And what role did Zimmerman himself play in placing himself in a situation where he would feel that fear? Grand jurors certainly will be able to put themselves in Zimmerman's shoes and decide for themselves if they would have chased a fleeing Martin after being told not to by a police dispatcher. I know I wouldn't have done it. How about you?

If it were merely a matter of Zimmerman's word against Martin's word it's clear the former would prevail. That's why there are so many "justifiable homicides" in Florida -- dead men don't testify. But now we've learned that Martin evidently was speaking on a cellphone with his girlfriend at the time of the attack. This witness told ABC News that Martin was spooked by Zimmerman and tried to run away from him. So now there is a conflict between two living people -- Zimmerman and Martin's girlfriend. On the one hand, you have a young man carrying candy and ice tea, prosecutors might tell grand jurors, on the other hand, you have a vigilante with a weapon in his belt and a chip on his shoulder.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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