In the moment that the hoodie — Trayvon Martin’s hoodie — appeared in Courtroom 5D in Seminole County, Fla., it was as if the air sluiced out the door. There was a breathless, aching stillness.
Prosecutors displayed the dark gray sweatshirt that Martin wore on the last night of his life in an enormous, rectangular, thickly three-dimensional frame. The hoodie lay suspended between clear plastic sheets with its arms spread wide inside a cross-shaped cutout, set starkly apart from the brilliant white of the matting. It might easily have been mistaken for a religious relic, even as it became a singularly evocative entry in a long inventory of indelible courtroom artifacts from O.J. Simpson’s ill-fitting gloves to Lorena Bobbitt’s emasculating kitchen knife. Prosecutors lifted the framed hoodie awkwardly, teetering toward the jury.
“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” says Michael Skolnik, who sat next to Martin’s parents on that morning, the day before the Fourth of July. Skolnik, the political director for hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and a member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation board, felt as if he were in the presence of something as consequential and iconic as Babe Ruth’s bat or the Declaration of Independence. “It’s like this mythical garment,” he says.
By then the hoodie wasn’t so much an exhibit in a murder trial as an idea, a cultural marker in an international conversation about race. And thus a question remains unanswered ever since that night of July 13, when jurors acquitted George Zimmerman, a gung-ho neighborhood watchman and wannabe cop, of murder and manslaughter charges in the death of Martin: What will become of the hoodie? What becomes of the courtroom artifacts of our national obsessions, of our most prurient or most substantive crime-and-justice fixations?
Will it become a museum piece? A ghoulish auction item? An object of private grief? A totem of rage? A banner of healing? Or could it disappear forever?
An uneasy fascination
There can be something uncomfortable about our relationship with these pieces of criminal lore. We want them, don’t we? But they make us uneasy. Keep them or lock them away? Flash them or stash them? Study them or exploit them?
Web sites sell serial-killer memorabilia, and some sniff with disapproval. Museums have to check their intentions — are they sensationalizing or educating? The Smithsonian passed up an opportunity to display the suit O.J. Simpson wore on the day of his acquittal; the Newseum took it instead, tilting the focus toward the news coverage rather than the man. The Newseum also displayed the Unabomber’s tiny Montana cabin, which had been taken apart and reassembled. The exhibit was a hit, but at least one observer griped: the Unabomber himself.
At a storage facility in the Washington area, the Law Enforcement Memorial Fund has stocked the complete case record — thousands of pieces of evidence — from the investigation and trial of Washington area snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. The Bushmaster rifle and Chevrolet Caprice that the men used during a killing spree that terrorized the region will be included in a museum the fund is planning to open in 2015. The idea is to educate the public and researchers about police investigative methods, the museum’s registrar, Vanya Scott, said.
John Wayne Bobbitt tried to make a fortune selling the 12-inch, red-handled kitchen knife that his wife, Lorena, used to slice off part of his penis in 1993. A Prince William County judge wouldn’t let him have it after his wife was acquitted of all criminal charges in 1994. Lorena Bobbitt never asked for it, her attorney, Blair Howard, said in an interview. “I think the last thing ever that she would want to retrieve is that knife,” he said, “She would want to put that behind her.”
Howard had no idea what happened to the knife, so it only seemed logical to ask the court. As it turns out, there was no museum afterlife for Lorena Bobbitt’s weapon. The knife was ordered destroyed in July 2004 and was most likely incinerated, a court spokeswoman said.
And what of the glove that O.J. Simpson struggled to wriggle his hand into during his 1995 murder trial in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman? Might its muted existence provide a clue about the future of Martin’s hoodie?
The glove was the subject of defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s famed line: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Now it lives inside a plastic evidence bag stowed in a vault at “an undisclosed location” in Los Angeles County, a spokesman for the county district attorney’s office said.
The office knows of only one time that the glove was displayed publicly: at the Palms Resort casino in Las Vegas during the 2010 California Homicide Investigators Association meeting. It drew a crowd.
A hoodie’s travels
Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has been on a journey since the verdict, shuffled from one place to another, its final destination far from certain.
Prosecutors got it first. But they quickly passed it to the Sanford Police Department, the beleaguered law enforcement agency that came under caustic criticism for its initial decision not to charge Zimmerman. Protesters wore hoodies at massive rallies called to trash and shame the Sanford police; now the police were back in possession of the symbolic core of the case.
There, in a secure room, officers had the elaborate frame disassembled. The hoodie was folded and repackaged in an evidence bag, according to a police spokesman. Its arms were no longer spread wide.
Then it was on the move again, this time to the U.S. Justice Department. Last week, Sanford police packed several boxes of evidence and drove them to a Justice Department office in Orlando. In those boxes were a bag of Skittles and an AriZona brand fruit drink, the two items that Martin’s family so poignantly noted were the only things he was armed with on that rainy night in February 2012 when Zimmerman spotted him walking through a modest gated community in Sanford.
The Justice Department had ordered the evidence held while it conducts a civil rights investigation, an inquiry that current and former Justice officials say has little chance in resulting in charges. There may be other treks for the hoodie, a state of limbo encased in plastic. It could be used in a civil lawsuit, for instance. But at some point the legal proceedings will end, and the sweatshirt will find its way back to the Sanford Police Department. Martin’s family will be given a chance to collect it.
All sorts of evidence goes uncollected. The police send expensive items such as cars and fancy bicycles to be auctioned, said Sanford police spokesman James McAuliffe. The worthless stuff that no one claims gets destroyed; there isn’t room to store it all. That’s not something McAuliffe expects to happen to a hoodie that has been on magazine covers.
“I don’t see that not being picked up,” he said.
And so, at some undefined point in the future — it could be years — Martin’s parents will have a choice to make. And they’re certain to get plenty of advice.
“I would like to see it preserved,” the Rev. Al Sharpton proclaimed into a cellphone on his way to a White House meeting about voting rights with President Obama.
Sharpton, more than any other person, might be responsible for bringing the Martin killing to trial. He organized the huge rally in Sanford that brought such pressure on Florida officials that the governor eventually appointed a special prosecutor to take on the case.
Sharpton is imagining what it would be like if we could see a snatch of clothing worn by Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who became a civil rights icon because he was killed after being accused of flirting with a white woman in 1950s Mississippi. Martin is this generation’s Emmett Till, Sharpton says. He calls the unarmed teenager’s death by a bullet that first pierced his hoodie, and then pierced his heart, the first civil rights flash point of the 21st century. And his hoodie is central to that distinction, an item of clothing that Sharpton says was used to profile Martin as a criminal. “The hoodie now represents an image of an urban street kid that either embraces or engages in street thug life,” he said. “I think it’s unfair.” By wearing hoodies at rallies, Sharpton says, he and others are seeking a redefinition.
Sharpton would like to see the hoodie reside one day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture now under construction on the Mall and expected to open in 2015. The museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, has assembled other pieces with legal themes. He acquired a guard tower from Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Penitentiary and the handcuffs used to restrain renowned African American scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in an episode that sparked a national debate about race and led to a “beer summit” with Obama aimed at cooling passions.
Martin’s hoodie, Bunch said, represents a unique opportunity to further the discussion about race in America. (And, by the way, he’d love to have it for his collection once the legal case plays out. He also has his eye on the hoodie that Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund, wore in solidarity with protesters.)
“It became the symbolic way to talk the Trayvon Martin case. It’s rare that you get one artifact that really becomes the symbol,” Bunch said. “Because it’s such a symbol, it would allow you to talk about race in the age of Obama.”
Curators, he mused, could “ask the bigger questions” prompted by the case.
“Are we in a post-racial age?” Bunch asked, dreaming about how the hoodie might help shape perceptions. Then he answered the question: “This trial says, ‘No.’ ”
Trayvon Martin’s death has put spotlight on perceptions about hoodies
Evolution of the hoodie
A short history of the hoodie
Josh White contributed to this report.