SANFORD, Fla.—Mary Cutcher and Selma Mora were making coffee when they heard the whine outside their window. Coffee after work, after 7 p.m., was a routine. “I’ll drink it 30 minutes before I go to bed,” says Cutcher, a 31-year-old massage therapist. “It’s strong, Colombian coffee, too. Selma’s family’s from Colombia. It doesn’t keep me awake at all.”
The whine jolted them. Cutcher and Mora’s home shares a kind of alley with dozens of other houses in the Retreat at Twin Lakes. The kitchen window looks out into a grassy space where people can walk their dogs; there are baggies at either end of the alley, to encourage neighborly cleanup. When they heard the noise—“desperate, like aaaaaah, aaaaah”—they looked through the window blinds.
No visibility. Two more whines. The sound of a gun going off. The two women raced over to their patio and went outside.
“Zimmerman is standing over Trayvon’s body,” remembers Cutcher. (Like a lot of people, she uses the last name to refer to the killer and the uncommon first name to refer to the victim.) “He’s straddling him. He has his hands pressed on Trayvon’s back. I called out, ‘What’s going on over there?’ But he’s facing away from us, and even when he turns it’s not like we can see his facial features.”
Mora, who’s also 31, takes me to the patio on Thursday afternoon to share what they could and couldn’t see. The homes in the Retreat are connected, with small front yards and bigger, shared backyards. The problem, on the night of Feb. 26, was that it was dark and raining.
“Had it not started raining,” says Cutcher, “there would have been a ton of kids playing outside.”
The only real illumination on Zimmerman was a neighbor’s porch light, which, according to Mora, “is always on.” When you survey the yard, you’re looking at one of the least likely places to shoot somebody. The patch of grass that Martin died on is visible from at least 20 porches. Mora’s porch, for example, is only around 19 feet away.
Cutcher called 911. Zimmerman “gets off the body and is kind of pacing,” she remembers. “I see him take a couple of steps, and then he’s just sitting there, as if he’s thinking, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’ ”
Responses to the Martin killing can be mapped as concentric circles, different reactions that change with distance. The widest circle reached for thousands of miles, capturing the people far from Sanford who have unshakeable, predetermined views of what likely happened. A narrower circle encompasses the black communities in and around Sanford, who’ve added the killing to their bill of grievances against local law enforcement. There’s a tight circle around the wealthier parts of Sanford, where people want “justice” but want it to happen soberly and without racial politicking.
But the closer you were to that alley on Feb. 26, the more distance you have from the circus. You’ve got a two-part story. This is what I saw. This is how the cops didn’t deal with it.
Police arrived and pronounced Martin dead at 7:30. Cutcher and Mora gave a statement and their phone numbers. The next day, Cutcher says that she made more phone calls to the police and didn’t hear back. Two days later, the police called to follow up, although according to Cutcher and Mora, this was fruitless. “We were told, ‘you guys just need to calm down,’ ” says Cutcher. “They never followed up after that.”
Not quite “never.” On March 14, as coverage of the story picked up, WFTV Channel 9 ran an interview with Cutcher. The police department’s response: Basically, they called her a liar. According to spokesman Sgt. Dave Morgenstern, Cutcher’s statement (which hasn’t been released) backed up Zimmerman’s story. “Actually,” said Morgenstern, “officers who were canvassing the neighborhood looking for potential witnesses, the evening of the shooting, contacted her and she said she did not want to get involved. She did write a statement, for her roommate, and that was only after several attempts by officers who were asking for her information.”
Cutcher denied that completely. The careful witness who’d only talked to Channel 9 behind a half-open door, signed up for a full-scale press conference with Martin’s family and attorneys. Over the next two weeks she did on-camera interviews with national news. Instead of a surreptitious shot of the witness on her cellphone, media covering the story had Cutcher, face to camera, explaining herself.
Cutcher’s media tour was a sideshow in a larger, public argument over whether the police could handle the case. The police didn’t win the argument. In swift succession, the Department of Justice opened an investigation into the case, the DOJ announced that it was investigating all of Sanford PD’s cases, and the chief of police stepped down.
All of this meant that the witnesses had to keep talking about what they saw, to a revolving cast of interviewers. Cutcher and Mora had Martin’s legal team handle the media requests. Other neighbors have opened up to the media, with varying degrees of anonymity. The content of their stories has differed depending on how close they were to Zimmerman and what they saw. But Cutcher and Mora didn’t know Zimmerman, and they couldn’t analyze him—whether he was beat up or not—from a distance.
After Mora shows me the setting, she walks up through the alley to the place where Zimmerman’s truck stopped. He’d watched Martin from an ersatz curbside, walking through the place where, theoretically, it would be easiest to break into houses. It happened to be the best shortcut to the home of Martin’s father’s fiance, where the 17-year-old was staying. For all of the attention paid to the possible scuffle between Martin and Zimmerman, the key detail of the story might end up being the shooter’s decision to leave his truck and follow Martin. Did he “stand” his ground? It looks like he left it, possibly hoping to defend somebody else’s.
On this particular afternoon, you can see what Zimmerman thought he was defending. The Retreat at Twin Lakes doesn’t look like some under-siege neighborhood packed with untrustworthy renters. Cutcher’s daughter scoots around the neighborhood, passing Mora’s son on his skateboard. A quartet of young black kids sit and gossip a few lawns away from an older woman watering her lawn.
“I’ve always felt safe here,” says Mora. She looks back at the patch of grass that so many cameras have snapped pictures of. “They make a story from something, and after a while, people will be like: Oh, Trayvon? Who was that guy?”
But the story won’t die down until the police department’s original mistakes are fixed, probably from a higher legal authority than you can find in Sanford. “We have no problem bringing cameras in here,” says Cutcher. “Really, it’s about whatever keeps this going until there is an arrest.”
Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.