(Because It’s About My Child, Too)
I keep asking myself- have we opened Pandora’s Box so wide that what George Zimmerman did is ACTUALLY legal and reasonable and entirely free from punishment? Early on, I thought it might be. Before I saw a deceased Jordan Davis and consoled his tearful parents, before Newtown, before spending months really looking at this country, I thought George Zimmerman was just “looking out for his own neighborhood” and might have had to shoot to protect his own life. And then I looked at life around me. And then I looked at all of the unreasonable and avoidable actions and inactions that caused him to take Trayvon’s life.
I start with a little about me and my family and what I learned about fear and prejudice in America. We were burglarized last August. Seeing my crying wife hold my crying child while police invaded our invaded house, made me wonder- do we all need to arm up to prevent the bad from taking over. With this thought and $50, I wound up with about 100 others in a Concealed Weapon Permit class, driven there by fear. This only made my fear worse. That was the its design- profit off of fear. Fear sells guns and breeds contempt and power.
The class was put on by a gun store with a cheesy name and the two men who ran the class were like circus barkers:
For just $162 and 4 hours, you, too, can be master of the universe. We even sell a book written by the top gun lawyer in the country, which you must buy. It tells you how to ‘get away’ with self defense. Live in the grey area of the gun laws. It tells you more than just, ‘don’t shoot them in the back,’ but what Stand Your Ground really means and how it protects your rights as an American citizen.
The two gun store employees proceeded to tell us more about boycotting certain specific businesses who did not allow guns on the premises than the laws we needed to know. Over the four hour presentation, they each pulled out six or seven guns from their various hiding spots, taking a few moments to give the sales pitch on each. I was so entranced, I actually bought one of the guns they pitched- the Bodyguard. They did well that day. They sold- America.
And, as I went alone, I remember just listening to the conversations around me. It was a few weeks before the 2012 Presidential election and most were there in fear of the re-election of “the black President.” Others had bought the NRA’s propaganda that the FBI was coming door-to-door to take guns or that permits would be more tightly regulated. Some spoke against the “thug” in Sanford who had been shot and speculated on who he was “staking out.” The rise in crime, the fear of minority power and other conspiracy theories drove quite a few people there to join the 1 million Concealed Weapon Permit holders in the State of Florida. Some had been victims. Some just wanted to feel less fear. All craved the lustful taste of power over fear a gun was promised to provide.
I left, hanging my head in shame. Who had I become? Had I let fear overcome me? Having grown up in the great State of Alabama, I knew racists. But they were only racists when they were around those they trusted. Now, racism is openly justified by crime reports, broken politics and black teenagers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Holy shit.
And then, weeks later, the God above put me on the couch of Ron Davis. His son, Jordan Davis was just shot and killed by a man with a gun in his glove box. Michael Dunn’s infamous last words were, “you aren’t going to talk to me like that.” People say it was about loud music, but it was about where we are as a society. It was about hate and intolerance, not race as I said in one of the first national interviews I did on the matter. I sat there with tears pouring down my and my associate’s faces- a broken man. Ron and Lucia had media trucks following them trying to scoop one another. All three local stations knocked on the door while I was there. Days earlier, he was a happy father hearing his son lead the Thanksgiving prayer for the first time, and now he was a broken man because of another broken man- Michael Dunn and his legal gun and the empowerment and control it brought him. He claims self defense and Stand Your Ground, as well.
We will deal with that matter in due course, but it changed me. It changed the way I view life and tolerance, love and passion. I grew very angry with lawyers, victims advocates and others who were using these victims or were in it for the profit. I grew impatient with the close minded. I walked as close as I could in the shoes of someone who had lost a child to gun violence. I wound up wanting to find solutions more and more. I felt (and feel) I can stop a few bullets. Trayvon can stop more. Jordan can stop more. The butterfly effect of all of our efforts can stop even more. Or maybe heal some hearts. Or something. We have to, because the next bullet could be flying towards any of us. And instead of Michael Dunn’s death sentence of “you aren’t going to talk to me like that,” George Zimmerman’s was basically, “you aren’t going to walk in my neighborhood like that.” What sentence will do you in.
My dad always said, “don’t start no shit, and there won’t be none (sic).” Let’s look at that-
So, why do we need George Zimmerman to be convicted and why, as a lawyer, do I feel he should be convicted?
On February 26, 2012, Zimmerman did one right thing- he called police. That was the LAST thing he did correct, reasonably and with any intelligence. If he stopped there, Trayvon Martin would be alive and George Zimmerman would be free of the justice system. But he compounded neglect of omission and commission thereafter- manslaughter.
On that fateful telephone call, Zimmerman identified a “black male” who he described as a “real suspicious guy,” who looked “up to no good,” who was “on drugs or something.” On the other hand, Trayvon clearly saw a white man staring at a black teenager while talking on the phone. Trayvon reacted by “coming towards” Zimmerman. Trayvon was close enough and it was clear enough for him to be identified as a teenager with a button on his shirt, Zimmerman added, “Somethings wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands, I don’t know what his deal is.”
Yes, George, he had a can of soda and some candy. But you judged him and thought it was something more sinister. And something was wrong with him- Trayvon had a guy staring at him, talking on the phone about him, watching him. Trayvon didn’t run because he had every right to be there and probably wanted to get a good look at you like you did him. At that point, we know George Zimmerman had jumped to several wrong conclusions- a black teen was in an area he shouldn’t be, he might have a weapon and was acting strange. Yet, we know the opposite- Trayvon was unarmed and not doing anything illegal at that moment.
And then George reveals his impatience, “How long until you get an officer over here?” And, “These assholes they always get away.” George instantaneously tried and convicted Trayvon of some wrongdoing. George was gauging if he should be the neighborhood hero like he had before. He got neighborhood fanfare last time. Maybe he should be the hero again and help the police, he likely thought.
George then admitted Trayvon “ran” from this white man, who stared at him. We know Trayvon then spoke to a friend. He described George as a “creepy” white guy or “cracker.” Rachel expressed concerns to Trayvon that George might be a rapist, probably further scaring the unarmed 17 year old. Trayvon was forming his own conclusions in a world where the young black male usually loses the battle of he said / she said. Trayvon had every right to think George meant him harm. He had every right to defend himself. He had every right to Stand His Ground. George clearly meant him harm- to apprehend him- a likely assault or battery… or worse.
At that point, George made his first mistake or act of culpable negligence- he left his vehicle and ADMITTEDLY followed Trayvon Martin. George admitted he was following Trayvon. While he also said he was looking for a “street sign,” anyone who is looking for a street sign (1) off of a street, (2) in a back ally, (3) behind houses, (4) while directly walking passing one (5) by a man who had made 40-plus such complaints without a prior problem of naming an address, (6) who had gone basically door-to-door and knew the neighborhood, (7) whose best friend lived right there, might lose the credibility battle on that issue. Further, he left his vehicle with a gun- a gun without a safety and a gun with an extra “topped off” bullet pre-loaded in the chamber. He appeared to have been running after Trayvon, as noted by the dispatcher. All clues lead to him leaving the role of “neighborhood watchman” and becoming and actively involved “neighborhood chaseman.” After all, he was the captain of the “watch.” He once noted his desire to “hunt fugitives.” He failed to be a cop only because he had bad credit. His ambition was to be a judge and he had already convicted Trayvon Martin because he looked like a bad guy acting strange. Each passing second, each step, heightened his culpability.
The “black male,” who was a “real suspicious guy,” who looked “up to no good,” who was “on drugs or something,” who was profiled by Zimmerman led Zimmerman to take matters into his own hands and try to seek apprehension of an innocent teen. He even called the unidentified kid with a can of tea a “suspect” days later. A suspect of what? At that point, George made his second mistake or act of culpable negligence- he erroneously jumped to conclusions of wrongdoing by Trayvon Martin and sought to act on them.
The police operator heard the door alarm and the sound of what appeared to be running and asked, “Are you following him?” George ADMITTED he was. “Ok, we don’t need you to do that,” the operating admonished, as he could not tell him not to under the rules of dispatchers. George said, “ok,” acknowledging this request. At that point, George made his third mistake or act of culpable negligence– he ignored the dispatcher, continuing to follow Trayvon Martin.
Despite wondering in the area he last saw Trayvon Martin, at no point does George say he is with neighborhood watch, mention the police are coming or try and engage Trayvon in discussion or try to diffuse the situation. He keeps following, looking and trying to capture him. At that point, George made his fourth mistake or act of culpable negligence- he failed to use reasonable measures to resolve a dispute, continuing to follow Trayvon Martin without attempt at reason, escalating this matter further.
George says he was punched in the nose at the “T-intersection.” Trayvon’s last known whereabouts are where his phone (and phone call) were dropped- dozens of yards from the “T.” Witnesses describe motion running away from the T, as if George was chasing or tackling Trayvon. George said Trayvon was hiding in the bushes. There were no bushes in the vicinity. Even if Trayvon was making a preemptive strike, George was chasing down a teenager he thought was armed and dangerous, suspicious and on drugs. George let his adrenaline and desire to be a hero and ARMED COURAGE lead him into a HAPHAZARD PHYSICAL CONFRONTATION.
I submit Zimmerman had gun drawn. I submit he lost control of his gun if Trayvon, indeed, made a preemptive strike. There is simply no way Trayvon Martin could have been straddling George Zimmerman and George could have pulled out his gun covered up by Trayvon’s leg and shot him. That would not match up ballistically. At that point, George made his fifth mistake or act of culpable negligence- he was a lousy excuse for a cop and engaged in haphazard and reckless confrontation. He tried to use his $100/month MMA and “self defense” training and hours in the gun range to be a hero when police were coming. He failed to identify he had a weapon. He failed to try and diffuse the situation IN ANY WAY as a grown man. He failed to control the situation. He failed to secure his firearm. He failed reason.
And then he shot Trayvon. We can argue about whether the force was reasonable, whether it was a defense of last resort, who the voice was or the lack of real injury to George Zimmerman, but all of those matters are up for debate. If George didn’t have a gun, police would have stopped the fight. Or the screams of neighbors would have stopped the fight. Or Zimmerman would have been knocked out cold by the kid who weighed less, had less fight training and who allegedly got the best of him. I submit both would be alive. But George Zimmerman was programmed and psychologically influenced by the power of being a law enforcer and member of the $162 club of gun toting Americans. At that point, George made his sixth and final mistake or act of culpable negligence- he shot and killed the black teen he called a “suspect” for days after the killing. He brought a knife to a fistfight. He ran to trouble and had to shoot his way out of it with police seconds away…
There is no “aggravated” manslaughter in this case, although some have claimed that there are heightened charges available because Trayvon was a minor. Not so. However, charges are heightened simply because a gun was involved. To prove manslaughter, the State must show:
The killing of a human being by the act, procurement, or culpable negligence of another, without lawful justification according to the provisions of chapter 776 and in cases in which such killing shall not be excusable homicide or murder, according to the provisions of this chapter, is manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
While I think the State can might show “spite” here to the right jury, I think this is a manslaughter case. If the State doesn’t overdo it in closing argument, manslaughter is not only entirely possible but probable and proper. Manslaughter by culpable negligence, a second degree felony, involves the killing of a human being where the defendant engages in:
A course of conduct showing reckless disregard of human life, or of the safety of persons exposed to its dangerous effects, or such an entire want of care as to raise a presumption of a conscious indifference to consequences, or which shows wantonness or recklessness, or a grossly careless disregard of the safety and welfare or the public, or such an indifference to the rights of others as is equivalent to an intentional violation of such rights.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to Zimmerman’s legal campaign by gun-rights proponents, the propping up of this case by the NRA and Fox News and the sheer effort taken to make this a case “for gun rights” shows exactly how important this decision is. If Zimmerman can neglectfully run to and initiate a fight, if Zimmerman can forgo ANY use reason or debate, if Zimmerman can create a situation he must shoot his way out of, if Zimmerman can act like a bad rookie cop, if Zimmerman can be overcome by impatience and prejudicial thinking and let the power of a gun cloud his mind and it not be neglect, then we all are in trouble.
We all lose if people can let fear trump reason. We all lose if we can let violence trump communication. We all lose if the defense of self allows one to act carelessly, negligently, even callously and stand free to kill. We all lose if citizens on patrol can be judge, jury and executioner because they learned it in a law book sold in a gun store or were taught it by a friend in law enforcement. We all lose if “you aren’t going to talk to me like that” or “these assholes always get away” becomes the measure for whether you can take a life.
We all lose if we do not learn from the loss of life- no matter how much we value its substance.