Five myths about the killing of Trayvon Martin

Jonathan Capehart
Opinion writer July 3, 2013

Jonathan Capehart is a Washington Post opinion writer. Follow him on Twitter: @CapehartJ

The killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2012, sparked a national debate on race, justice and the wisdom of “stand your ground” laws. But many of the facts in the case have been in dispute, from the moment this tragedy captured the public’s attention and through the ongoing Zimmerman trial. Misconceptions and misinformation abound about what happened, who did what and who said what to whom.

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

1. On the night of the shooting, the police ordered Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle.

“Are you following him?” the operator for the Sanford police’s non-emergency line asks Zimmerman. “Yeah,” he says. The dispatcher on the phone tells him: “We don’t need you to do that.”

Who the aggressor was that fateful night is the central — and most unanswerable — question of the case. Those who fault Zimmerman have latched on to this back-and-forth with Sean Noffke, the operator, as proof that Zimmerman defied a direct police order.

Not so. Noffke testified on the first day of the jury trial that it is dispatchers’ policy not to give orders to callers. “We’re directly liable if we give a direct order,” he explained. “We always try to give general basic . . . not commands, just suggestions.” So, “We don’t need you to do that” is different than a more direct “Don’t do that.”

Under cross-examination, Noffke added more context to his “suggestion” when asked whether his requests for updates on what Martin was doing encouraged Zimmerman to follow the unarmed 17-year-old. “It’s best to avoid any kind of confrontation, to just get away from the situation,” Noffke said.

2. Martin broke Zimmerman’s nose.

Zimmerman says Martin came up behind him and cold-cocked him square in the nose, knocking him to the ground. In his numerous television interviews, Zimmerman’s brother Robert has said unequivocally that George’s nose was broken. But that was never definitively diagnosed by a doctor.

According to the report by Sanford police officer Michael Wagner on the night of the shooting, “Zimmerman’s face was bloodied and it appeared to me that his nose was broken.” Officer Jonathan Mead made a similar observation. But, according to police reports, “Zimmerman declined” an opportunity “to be transported to the hospital in order to be examined by a doctor for his injuries.”

To return to work the next day, Zimmerman needed medical clearance. The report from Altamonte Family Practice completed the day after the shooting notes that Zimmerman told the attending assistant physician that emergency medical personnel on the scene the night before told him he had a broken nose. But the Altamonte report states: “We discussed that it is likely broken, but does not appear to have septal deviation. The swelling and black eyes are typical of this injury.” Zimmerman was advised to be evaluated by an ear, nose and throat specialist, “but he refused.”

3. A widely circulated photograph of Martin wearing a Hollister T-shirt shows him much younger than he was the night he died.

Those who fervently believe that Martin was a thug or a thug-in-training are especially incensed by the photo of him smiling in a red Hollister T-shirt. Not only do they claim that the photo makes Martin look more innocent and sympathetic, they also charge that it depicts him at a much younger age than he was when he was killed. Their assumption is that Martin is between 11 and 14 years old in the photo. For more than a year, some have been sharing what one reader told me was “an up-to-date photo” of Martin. The person in the photo is the rapper Game, who was about 30 years old when the snapshot was taken for XXL magazine in 2010.

Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump told me in February that the Hollister T-shirt photo of Trayvon was taken in August 2011, when he was 16 years old. That was six months before he turned 17, on Feb. 5, 2012. He was killed three weeks after that.

4. Martin’s death led to a reexamination of “stand your ground” laws.

The killing did cause a national outcry against “stand your ground” laws. Florida is one of 24 states that adopted such legislation, which has been championed by the National Rifle Association. In 2005, the Sunshine State amended its self-defense law to allow potential victims to stand their ground against an assailant by removing the duty to retreat and permitting them to meet force with force — including deadly force — if they reasonably believe it is necessary to save their lives. It also granted them immunity from prosecution.

In reaction to the tragedy in Sanford, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) appointed a panel to examine the state’s law. But a year later, the 19-member Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection recommended that the eight-year-old statute not be repealed. And no other state has rolled back a similar law.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted in May to investigate whether there is racial bias in “stand your ground” laws. An analysis of nearly 200 casesby the Tampa Bay Times last year suggests that there is. “Defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black,” the Times found. “Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”

5. On the night of the attack, Zimmerman made racial slurs that proved his prejudice toward Martin.

In Zimmerman’s call to the non-emergency number of the Sanford Police Department, many thought they could hear him disparaging Martin in a whispered comment that supposedly sounded like “F---ing coons.” But Florida Assistant State Attorney John Guy proved in dramatic fashion during his opening arguments last month that Zimmerman’s second word was actually “punks.” The defendant was also asked about this during his Feb. 29, 2012, interview with then-lead detective Chris Serino.

Yet, race did come into play that rainy night during a conversation between Martin and his friend Rachel Jeantel. The now-19-year-old, who was on the phone with Martin until moments before he was killed, testified last month that the 17-year-old described Zimmerman as a “creepy-a-- cracker.” She added that Martin said “[N-word] still following me” after he thought he had lost Zimmerman. While “cracker” is a disparaging term for whites, it doesn’t hold nearly the same offensive punch as the N-word. That Martin applied the latter to Zimmerman reveals that the racial epithet for African Americans now appears to have a universal application.

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