The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman took place on the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, United States. Martin was a 17-year-old African American high school student. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old mixed-race Hispanic, was the neighborhood watch coordinator for the gated community where Martin was temporarily staying and where the shooting took place. Following an earlier call from Zimmerman, police arrived within two minutes of a gunshot during a scuffle, in which Zimmerman had fatally shot Martin.
Zimmerman was taken into custody, treated for head injuries, then questioned for five hours. The police chief said that Zimmerman was released for lack of evidence and lack of legal grounds for arrest, and that Zimmerman had a right to defend himself with lethal force. However, six weeks later, amidst what some have described as a “media circus“ atmosphere with some misleading reporting, Zimmerman was charged with murder by a special prosecutor appointed by Governor Rick Scott.
Zimmerman’s trial began on June 10, 2013, in Sanford. On July 13, 2013, a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder and of manslaughter charges.
Trayvon Benjamin Martin
Trayvon Benjamin Martin (February 5, 1995 – February 26, 2012) was the son of Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who were divorced in 1999. He was a junior at Dr. Michael M. Krop High School and lived with his mother and older brother in Miami Gardens, Florida. Trayvon’s English teacher, Michelle Kypriss, described him as an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness.
On the day Martin was fatally shot, he and his father were visiting his father’s fiancée and her son at her townhome in The Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, a multi-ethnic gated community, where the shooting occurred. Martin had visited his father’s fiancée at Twin Lakes several times.
Martin had been suspended from school at the time of his death.
He had been suspended twice before. One suspension was for tardiness and truancy. Another suspension in October 2011 was for graffiti, when Martin was observed by a security camera in a restricted area of the school marking up a door with “W.T.F.“ When he was later searched by a Miami-Dade School Police Department officer, looking for the graffiti marker, the officer found several pieces of women’s jewelry in his backpack, which Martin said a friend had given to him. A screwdriver was also found, which was described by the school police investigator as a burglary tool. The jewelry was impounded and given to the police, but no evidence ever surfaced to indicate that the jewelry was stolen.
Martin’s third suspension involved a marijuana pipe and an empty bag containing marijuana residue. Martin was not charged with any crime related to these incidents and did not have a juvenile record. Judge Debra Nelson ruled that the defense may have access to Martin’s records, including the details of these suspensions, as well as access to Martin’s social media sites, but ruled they will not be admissible as evidence during the trial unless they can be shown to be relevant.[
The Retreat at Twin Lakes is a 260-unit gated townhome community in Sanford, Florida. The population in the development, at the time of the shooting, was about 49% non-Hispanic white, 23% Hispanic (of any race), 20% black, and 5% Asian, according to Census figures. Both George Zimmerman and Tracy Martin’s fiancée were renting homes in the development when the shooting occurred. At the time of the shooting, Martin had been staying with his father’s fiancee at The Retreat.
From January 1, 2011 through February 26, 2012, police were called to The Retreat at Twin Lakes 402 times. During the 18 months preceding the February 26 shooting, Zimmerman called the non-emergency police line seven times. On five of those calls, Zimmerman reported suspicious looking men in the area, but never offered the men’s race without first being asked by the dispatcher. Crimes committed at The Retreat in the year prior to Martin’s death included eight burglaries, nine thefts, and one shooting. Twin Lakes residents said there were dozens of reports of attempted break-ins, which had created an atmosphere of fear in their neighborhood.
In September 2011, the Twin Lakes residents held an organizational meeting to create a neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman was selected by neighbors as the program’s coordinator, according to Wendy Dorival, Neighborhood Watch organizer for the Sanford Police Department.
Three weeks prior to the shooting, on February 2, 2012, Zimmerman called police to report a young man peering into the windows of an empty Twin Lakes home. Zimmerman was told a police car was on the way and he waited for their arrival. By the time police arrived, the suspect had fled. On February 6, workers witnessed two young black men lingering in the yard of a Twin Lakes resident around the same time her home was burgled. A new laptop and some gold jewelry were stolen. The next day police discovered the stolen laptop in the backpack of a young black man, which led to his arrest. Zimmerman identified this young man as the same person he had spotted peering into windows on February 2.
Zimmerman had been licensed to carry a firearm since November 2009. In response to Zimmerman’s multiple reports regarding a loose pit bull in the Twin Lakes neighborhood, a Seminole County Animal Services officer advised Zimmerman to “get a gun”, according to a friend, rather than rely on pepper spray to fend off the pit bull, which on one occasion had cornered his wife. Although neighborhood watch volunteers are not encouraged to carry weapons, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee acknowledged that Zimmerman had a legal right to carry his firearm on the night of the shooting.
On March 20, 2012, State attorney Norm Wolfinger announced that a Seminole County grand jury would be convened on April 10 to investigate the death of Martin. However, after State Attorney Angela Corey was assigned to the case by Florida Governor Rick Scott on March 22, she decided that her office would decide whether to press charges. “I always lean towards moving forward without needing the grand jury in a case like this, I foresee us being able to make a decision, and move on it on our own.”
Governor Scott asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to investigate the shooting and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi confirmed that the FDLE was involved and stated “no stone will be left unturned in this investigation.”
On March 20, 2012, the Justice Department announced that it was opening investigations into the incident. The FBI opened a parallel investigation into whether Martin’s civil rights were violated, interviewed witnesses, and looked into Zimmerman’s background.
On July 12, interviews conducted by the FBI were publicly released. The Sanford Police Department’s lead investigator, Chris Serino, told FBI agents that he believed Zimmerman’s actions were not based on Martin’s race, but instead on Martin’s attire, the circumstances of the encounter, and previous burglaries in the neighborhood. Zimmerman’s neighbors and co-workers were interviewed as well. Neighbors who knew Zimmerman had nothing derogatory to say about him and his co-workers were complimentary of him.
Serino also told the FBI that he had felt pressure from three officers within the department to charge Zimmerman although he “did not believe he had enough evidence at the time to file charges”, and accused one of these officers of being friendly with Martin’s father. He also expressed concern to the FBI about possible leaks of evidence to the media from within the department.
Martin’s autopsy report
The Volusia County medical examiner found that Martin was killed by an injury resulting from a single gunshot to the chest, fired at “intermediate range”, between 1 and 18 inches according to a forensic expert.[Note 6] An FDLE analysis of Martin’s body and clothes described the distance as “a contact shot”. The autopsy also found that Martin had one small abrasion on his left ring finger below the knuckle. No other injuries were found on Martin’s body at the time of his death. Physicians who reviewed the official autopsy report for the Orlando Sentinel, stated in their opinion that Martin lived from 20 seconds to several minutes after he was shot, and that Martin likely remained conscious “for a little time, anyway”.
The autopsy report stated that Martin had trace levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his blood and urine. The toxicology report found the levels to be 1.5 nanograms/ml of THC and 7.3 nanograms/ml of THC-COOH, a metabolite of THC that can stay in the system for weeks after cannabis has been smoked. Larry Kobilinsky, a professor of forensic science, stated that the THC amount was so low that it may have been ingested days earlier and played no role in Martin’s behavior
The day after the verdict was delivered, the NAACP posted a petition formally requesting the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman. Within hours, 130,000 people had signed the petition.
During a speech at to the NAACP, Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the Department of Justice was continuing to investigate Zimmerman for civil rights violations after the verdict, and also criticized existing “stand-your-ground” laws. Holder’s speech was denounced by the NRA and Florida Governor Rick Scott.
Most legal scholars were generally not surprised by the verdict, criticizing State Attorney Angela Corey in particular for potentially over-charging Zimmerman with second degree murder and then trying for compromised lesser charges at the final hour, which made it almost impossible for the prosecution to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt with the evidence they had at their disposal. Some attorneys commenting on the case said that the prosecution had failed to adequately prepare their witnesses for trial and had been out-maneuvered by the defense attorneys.
Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz remained extremely critical of State Attorney Angela Corey’s actions in the case, charging that “her conduct bordered on criminal conduct” and “in 50 years of litigating cases … rarely have I seen [a prosecutor] as bad as this prosecutor”.
Although there were scattered incidents of rioting and vandalism following the not-guilty ruling, fears of widespread civil unrest (as per the Rodney King verdict in 1992) were unrealized.
Six days after the verdict, President Barack Obama gave a 20-minute speech in the White House Press Room, in which he spoke about the trial, and race relations in the United States..