Can We Trust the Cops’ Leaked Account of Trayvon Martin’s Killing?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
March 26 2012 6:00 PM

Can We Trust the Cops’ New Account of Trayvon Martin’s Killing?

Not as long as they rely on leaks and unnamed witnesses.

George Zimmerman who is a suspect in the shooting death of teen Trayvon Martin.
New information has been leaked about the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman (pictured)

AFP Photo/ORANGE COUNTY JAIL/Newscom

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

The latest in the Trayvon Martin killing, from the Orlando Sentinel:

"With a single punch, Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who eventually shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old, then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times, leaving him bloody and battered, authorities have revealed to the Orlando Sentinel."

Much of this “has been corroborated by witnesses,” the paper says. Also, “One eyewitness has said he saw the teenager on top of Zimmerman.”

This comes from a leak from the police to the Sentinel. Zimmerman, the 28-year-old who shot 17-year-old Martin to death in February and has not been arrested because he claimed self-defense, still hasn’t spoken publicly. Nor have the unnamed witnesses.

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Which makes it very hard to know what to make of this new information. It’s entirely at odds with the account of Martin’s girlfriend, who says Martin was talking to her on his cell phone just before his death. The girlfriend says she heard Martin ask a man, “What are you following me for,” and that the man answered, “What are you doing here?” Then she heard Martin pushed to the ground. To point out the obvious, the police in Sanford, Fla., where the shooting took place, are the definition of embattled. Their chief resigned last week and the decision not to arrest Zimmerman—based on the belief that he reasonably feared bodily harm or for his life when he shot Martin—is a flashpoint for national outcry. No wonder someone in the department got fed up and leaked facts that support the cops’ decision-making.

For all we know, this new account may be true. We also know Zimmerman had a bloody nose, a swollen lip, and cuts to the back of his head, though he didn’t go to the hospital. But there’s no way to know what to make of his story yet. That’s why we have judges and juries—to sort out disputed facts. And it’s why “Stand Your Ground” laws like Florida’s, which the police have read as discouraging them from bringing charges when there’s a claim of self-defense, are such a terrible idea.

There’s a certain irony here: Usually, police and prosecutors control the narrative of a criminal case. They hold a press conference, announce they are bringing charges, and tell a story that becomes the official version until trial. Once in a while, defense lawyers try to counter some or all of it. But most of the time they don’t. That’s in part because of the rules that limit what lawyers can say about pending criminal cases, for fear of influencing the jury pool. And it’s in part because if defense lawyers put out their clients’ competing version of events, and then end up offering a different defense at trial, it’s a problem.

This time, though, the decision not to arrest Zimmerman was so hard to fathom that the version of events that has taken root is not the police’s or Zimmerman’s. It’s the Martin family’s version. Now it’s the cops’ turn to grind their teeth, resort to leaks, and hope they can somehow turn the direction of the tsunami of news coverage. To do that, though, they’ll need more than unnamed witnesses. For once, it doesn’t even matter that the black teenager who was the victim here was suspended from school because traces of marijuana were found in his book bag, as his family confirmed Monday. The country has already fallen in love with Trayvon Martin. If the Sanford police want to convince us they did the right thing in letting his killer go, they’ll have to prove it. They’ll need a hearing in open court, not anonymous leaks.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

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