Had Trayvon Martin not been shot dead on this day last year, he would have turned 18 this month. In the initial weeks following Martin’s death, national anger fomented as his killer, George Zimmerman, had walked free, without any charges, claiming self-defense when he shot the unarmed teen. Across the country, thousands gathered for solidarity marches calling for justice and an end to the structural racism apparently characterizing the case.
Zimmerman, 28, was eventually prosecuted. In April he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and is currently awaiting trial set for June 10. While news about the case has perennially hit headlines in recent months — for example, when Zimmerman offered his autograph to his legal fund donors — the proceeding have general fallen under the media radar. Here are the major developments and issues to be aware of.
1) Contradictory evidence
Much of the case being presented to jurors in Florida focuses around video and photo evidence from the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s defense team produced images reportedly from the night showing the shooter’s head bloodied and cut. It’s also unclear whether blurry video footage shows Zimmerman with an injury at the back of his head or not. According to the defendant, Martin had aggressively forced him to the ground and he shot in self-defense.
However, much evidence conflicts with Zimmerman’s account. For example, as CNN noted, “according to test results made public last May, which showed evidence of Zimmerman’s hands on the firearm, but not those of the teenager he killed. And an analysis showed that scrapings from underneath the teenager’s fingernails did not contain any of Zimmerman’s DNA, as may rub off in a prolonged struggle.” Zimmerman’s reenactment of events for police video has also raised questions based on memory lapses and accuracy gaps:
Martin’s death swiftly became a rallying cry to address racism in the criminal justice system. The allegations from Martin’s family that their hoodie-clad son was pursued by a zealous neighborhood vigilante resonated nationwide for those who had experienced and observed similar racial profiling — it was in this way that efforts to end stop-and-frisk NYPD policy aligned with efforts to seek justice for Martin. Zimmerman’s 911 call to report Martin as “suspicious” ahead of the shooting compounded allegations of racism.
Commentators have also argued that the “stand your ground” law under which Zimmerman was presumed able to initially walk free without charges inscribed a further structural racism into law. The law, born of model legislation from ALEC and the NRA, protects a shooter from prosecution if they “had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful act was occurring or had occurred” — what gets to count as “reason to believe” is troubling when dark skin and a hoodie serve as grounds for suspicion.
3) Is this about “stand your ground” laws?
Although the Martin case drew problems with “stand your ground” or “castle” laws to the fore, it is not on a “stand your ground” benefit that Zimmerman is hedging his defense:
“In this particular case, George did not have an ability to retreat because he was on the ground with Trayvon Martin mounting him, striking blows, therefore the Stand Your Ground ‘benefit’ given by the statute simply does not apply to the facts of George’s case: it is traditional self-defense,” Zimmerman’s attorneys said on the web site detailing his legal case.
The man who shot an unarmed black teen and had a history of making excessive 911 calls about black men is angered about his media image. However, Zimmerman has sued NBC with seemingly good cause over edits they made to his 911 call about Martin, which do appear to have played up a racial motivation narrative. As Salon noted late last year, the evidence against the network is damning. The first altered call that NBC aired included these statements, in which Zimmerman described Martin:
“Zimmerman: There is a real suspicious guy. Ah, this guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something. He looks black.” Dispatcher: Are you following him? Zimmerman: Yeah. Dispatcher: Ok we don’t need you to do that.”
On a different occasion, NBC changed Zimmerman’s remarks to this:
“Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something. He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male. Dispatcher: Are you following him? Zimmerman: Yeah. Dispatcher: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.”
But the lawsuit says the conversation Zimmerman had with the dispatcher actually went like this:
“Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about. Dispatcher: OK and this guy – is he white, black or Hispanic? Zimmerman: He looks black.”
The suit alleges that about a minute of audio was deleted, but the above example alone is striking – NBC’s decision to remove the dispatcher’s question about race certainly shifts the character of Zimmerman’s remarks.
5) “Justice for Trayvon” efforts spread beyond the trial
Martin’s parents have noted that the determinations of the jury are largely out of their hands. They have focused activism following their son’s death on combating gun violence and racism.
“We just want to have that trial, and let the jury decide,” said Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. “And whatever decision comes out of that, we’re going to accept that.”
Meanwhile, Martin’s death was the spark that provoked hundreds of groups with varied political tendencies to take to the streets in “Million Hoodie Marches.” Those furious demonstrations have long since died down, but to mark one year since his shooting, marches have been called in to mark the anniversary in cities around the country.