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‘Stand your ground’ case not what it seemed

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On Monday, in a Florida courtroom, George Zimmerman goes on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin.

In the immediate aftermath of Martin’s death in February 2012, the media portrayed Zimmerman as a gun-crazy vigilante who stalked and murdered a harmless black youth. Since then, Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s tenacious lawyer, has extracted bits and pieces of evidence from an ethically challenged prosecution that prove Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defence. So, at long last, the media’s false narrative is about to collide with the hard facts in a court of law.

Let’s start with the tape of Zimmerman’s 911 call to police. Unlike the deceptively spliced and edited snippets broadcast on television news, the full, undoctored tape proves that, at the time he was supposedly hunting down his intended victim, Zimmerman was asking 911 to send a police officer to his location to investigate Martin’s suspicious behavior. If Zimmerman was intending murder, why would he first alert the police and invite them to the scene of the crime?

Similarly, Zimmerman can be heard on the full tape telling the 911 operator that Martin was approaching him. This unscripted, real-time declaration contradicts the media gospel that Zimmerman stalked a retreating and inoffensive Martin.

Moreover, various civilian witnesses have given police statements establishing that, when the fatal shot was fired, Zimmerman was on the ground being beaten by Martin. One witness told police he saw a black male in a dark-color hoodie (later identified as Martin) on top of a "white or Hispanic male" in a red sweatshirt (later identified as Zimmerman), who was on the ground. Martin was throwing punches in "mixed martial-arts" style, while Zimmerman was calling for help.

A second witness told police that he saw Zimmerman on the ground, calling for help "over and over" while he was being beaten.

These and other witnesses described Zimmerman’s cries as "a whining sound," "a groaning noise" in which he cried, "Oh, oh, help me," and "crying or moaning in desperation."

The beating lasted until Zimmerman shot Martin.

How long was Zimmerman beaten before he fired his gun? One witness called 911 while the assault took place. The tape of that call runs 38 seconds, during which a voice is heard in the background repeatedly screaming for help. According to the caller, the screaming had prompted her to call 911. How long the screaming lasted before she called is unknown. But, adding that time — however long — to the 38 seconds on the tape establishes that the allegedly trigger-happy, bloodthirsty Zimmerman had been pinned to the ground taking a beating for 38-plus seconds before finally resorting to deadly force. By this measure, Zimmerman acted with great restraint.

Martin’s parents have repeatedly claimed that the person on the tape calling for help was their son. But immediately after the killing, the police played the 911 call for Martin’s father, who said unequivocally that the voice pleading for help was not his son’s.

Another witness reported being in his condo when he heard "someone yelling, almost crying," followed by a single gunshot. When the witness ventured outside, he asked Zimmerman if everything was "OK." Zimmerman replied, "Just call the police."

Are these the words of a murderer who has just executed his victim?

Then, having allegedly murdered someone, did Zimmerman flee? Far from it. He waited for the police. When the first officer arrived, a witness heard Zimmerman say: "I’ve got a gun. Just take my gun from me."

The first responding officer describes the scene as follows:

"Zimmerman stated that he had shot the subject and was still armed. Zimmerman complied with all my commands and was secured in handcuffs. ... I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of the head."

By this account, Zimmerman certainly wasn’t acting like a violent predator fresh from the kill. Moreover, the officer’s description of Zimmerman’s clothing and injuries further corroborates that he had been flat on the ground taking a beating.

Other officers reported that Zimmerman appeared to have "a broken and bloody nose and swelling of his face," as well as cuts and abrasions to his face and the back of his head. And, consistent with Zimmerman’s injuries and the witness statements, the autopsy report documents that Martin had a premortem abrasion to his left ring finger.

According to the autopsy report and the prosecution’s forensic analysts, death was caused by a single shot fired from a gun that was either in contact with or no more than one inch away from Martin’s hoodie. This supports witness accounts of Martin straddling Zimmerman in the immediate prelude to the shooting, and undermines widespread claims that Zimmerman shot Martin from a safe distance.

All of this evidence makes clear that Zimmerman should never have been arrested. That he must now stand trial for second-degree murder is a sad reflection of the prosecution’s cowardice in the face of media-spawned hysteria connected to Florida’s "stand your ground" law. Now, as the trial begins, the only real question is whether a fair and impartial jury can be found that will have the courage to defy the lynch-mob frenzy swirling about this case and free an innocent man.


George Parry is a former state and federal prosecutor practicing law in Philadelphia.

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