Amid evidence cache in Martin case, questions nag

Published 5:41 pm Friday, May 18, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. — Prosecutors in the Trayvon Martin case dumped a mountain of evidence on the public this week. In many criminal cases, that would bring clarity, start answering the basic questions.

But no one — not pundits, attorneys or the public — can safely say we’re even close to knowing exactly how and why neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot and killed the 17-year-old in the black hoodie.

So many aspects of the Feb. 26 altercation and shooting in Sanford remain muddy. Who threw the first punch? Why did Zimmerman leave his car?

Email newsletter signup

This cache of recordings, photos and statements is far from all the evidence. But it suggests there are answers we may never truly get.

“I can’t comment on, you know, what George saw or what George was thinking,” the suspect’s father, Robert, told investigators in a March 19 interview included in Thursday’s release. “Or what anybody saw or what they were thinking.”

In some states, “discovery” like this isn’t released prior to trial — unless it’s by a defense team hoping to score points in the court of public opinion. That is what happened during the infamous 2006 Duke University lacrosse rape case, in which North Carolina officials ultimately determined that the local prosecutor rushed to judgment in charging three students with raping a stripper.

In Florida, evidence is generally considered a public record once the prosecution turns it over to the defense. Among the things prosecutors are prohibited from releasing pretrial: Confessions.

Zimmerman gave several interviews to police, including re-enacting at the scene what he says happened that night. But there is no statement from the 28-year-old shooter among the materials made public this week.

His only public comment so far came during his detention hearing last month, when he apologized to Martin’s parents — but stopped short of admitting any crime.

Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor, says all this release does is to remind us how malleable “facts” can be.

“I think we always want evidence to be like we’re Moses climbing the temple mountain: You read it and get all the questions answered,” says Lave, who worked a decade as a public defender before entering academia. “I think people are really getting to find out how gray evidence really is.”

Perhaps the biggest revelation was the release of photographs showing Zimmerman with two black eyes, a swollen nose and multiple lacerations on the back of his close-cropped head.

Zimmerman’s lawyers have maintained their client was simply doing his duty when he noticed a stranger in the neighborhood and began following him. They say Martin was the aggressor, knocking Zimmerman to the ground, then pummeling him with his fists.

When Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm pistol and fired directly into the boy’s chest, the defense says, he was within his rights under Florida’s “stand your ground law.” Under that law, people are given wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat in a fight if they believe they are in danger of being killed or seriously injured, if they weren’t committing a crime themselves and if they are in a place they have the legal right to be.

Randy McClean, an Orlando-area defense attorney, has sifted through most of the evidence released thus far. He says it corroborates Zimmerman’s story of a struggle that was “at least moderate in nature.”

“But we still have the issue out there: Who was the initial aggressor?” McClean said. “The fact that there was a physical altercation, and it appears Martin was getting the better of Zimmerman in the altercation, it does not necessarily excuse Zimmerman’s act. Because if he was the initial aggressor, he can’t avail himself to the stand your ground law.”

To Martin’s family, none of that matters. Zimmerman shouldn’t have been following their son in the first place, especially after a dispatcher told him to stand down.

But, as Lave notes, “You don’t lose the right to self-defense because you act idiotic.”

Some of the interviews released illustrate just how difficult it may be to reach the truth.

On one of the 911 calls, someone can be heard screaming for help just before the gunshot. When Martin’s mother heard that audio, she declared definitively that it was his voice; the boy’s father told an investigator it wasn’t Trayvon.

Robert Zimmerman was adamant that the voice on the recording was HIS son’s.

The FBI says it performed voice recognition analysis on the recording. Because of the poor audio quality, it was deemed inconclusive.

According to documents released this week, Martin’s blood showed traces of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. We knew from earlier reports that he’d been disciplined for smoking pot, and the amounts found in his blood sample suggest he hadn’t indulged in the days leading up to the incident, experts told The Associated Press.

Despite all this new evidence, some aren’t sure the case will ever go to trial.

Before that can happen, a judge must first schedule a hearing on whether the stand your ground law applies. Zimmerman’s attorneys will have to prove his case by a “preponderance of the evidence” — a fairly low bar, jurisprudence-wise. It just means that more likely than not, Zimmerman acted within the law.

“If he prevails, the prosecutor is barred from proceeding criminally,” says Lave, “and the Martin family from pursuing him civilly.”

She thinks this case will go to trial. Then, she believes, like many, that the testimony of Martin’s girlfriend will be pivotal.

The girl, whose name was redacted from the released audio files, spoke with assistant state attorney Bernie De la Rionda on April 2. During the 22-minute interview, she said in a shaking voice that she had been talking with Martin since before he entered a 7-Eleven store to purchase his now famous iced tea and Skittles.

The cell connection was bad, and the couple were repeatedly disconnected. But at one point, Martin told her he noticed a white man sitting in a car, watching him.

“He was telling me, like, that man watching him, he going to start walking and then the phone hung up and I called him back again,” the girl said. “And I said, ‘What you doing? And he said he walking and he said this man still following him.”

It was drizzling, and the girl said Martin told her he was putting up his hood.

“I told him go to his dad’s house,” she said.

Martin told her that he was going to run. She could hear the wind blowing in the phone’s speaker.

“He was breathing hard,” she said. “(his) voice kinda changed. I know he was scared. (his) voice was getting kinda low.”

Suddenly, she heard Martin say, “Why you following me for?”

The girl said she could hear another voice, one she described as deep and belonging to an “old man.”

“The old man say, ‘What you doing around here?'”

She asked Martin repeatedly what was going on, but he didn’t respond. She said she heard someone say, “Get off,” though she thought it was her boyfriend.

She heard rustling, then nothing. No screaming, no gunshot.

The evidence dump included another interview with the girl, but the audio quality is so poor as to make it almost unintelligible. One thing that did come through: A detective mentioned that the girlfriend called Martin at 7:12 p.m.

When police arrived at the scene at 7:17 p.m., Martin was already shot and on the ground.

“She’s the only person, for sure, that is a witness who knows what he (Martin) felt and sounded like in those moments,” Lave says of the girlfriend. “All those things can play a role in the outcome of the case.”

But there are gaps in the file no one can fill.

Martin can’t describe his feelings that evening — whether he was angry, afraid, both.

Zimmerman — who has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and is in hiding — could testify to his own state of mind. But would people believe anything he says?

Martin’s parents say Zimmerman racially profiled the boy. Some of those who’ve spoken to police believe it.

“I don’t know what happened,” one distraught woman, who is not identified, says in one the recordings released this week. “I don’t at all know who this kid was or anything else, but I know George. And I know that he does not like black people. He would start something just to start something. He’s very confrontational. It’s in his blood, we’ll just say that.”

Zimmerman’s supporters say there’s not a racist bone in his body.

“I know that George Zimmerman, if several Asians had broken in places there, and he saw an Asian walking around, he’d probably say, ‘Wait a minute. I recognize most of the people that live here, and I don’t recognize that person,'” his father told police in the March 19 interview.

If he consents, police could subject the watchman to a polygraph test. But, even if it was admitted as evidence, you can’t depose someone’s heart.

For his part, Robert Zimmerman said he felt as if the case and the public storm surrounding it were “an avalanche, and I’m standing at the bottom of it …”

With luck, the truth in this challenging case won’t be buried there, too.