This article is devoted to one issue: the fact the George Zimmerman stepped out of his truck on the night of February 26, 2012. I thought this issue had been long laid to rest–at least for those willing to be persuaded by law, reason and fact–but it appears that’s not the case. Comments to recent articles (update 29.2 particularly), and elsewhere make definitively addressing this issue timely. Consider this comment by ackbarsays at Talk Left, which is representative of what I’ve been seeing of late:
Jeralyn, last night I was discussing this case on Nettles’ blog with another blogger who was wavering back and forth over whether he should contribute. He apparently has the financial resources that he could easily contribute $25,000 to the cause, and he appeared to be considering it, but he kept going back to a question of whether Zimmerman was morally responsible for Martin’s death because Zimmerman had gotten out of his truck. I wrote this to him and I thought it might be helpful to anyone who sees your page here and is asking themselves the same question.
To be as complete as possible, I’ll analyze the matter legally, morally, practically and tactically.
The transcript of Zimmerman’s non-emergency call, his testimony, and the findings of the Sanford Police are clear and direct. Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin, who, considering the circumstances, was clearly acting suspiciously. It was dark and raining, and rather than obviously moving toward shelter, Martin appeared to be casing the area. Zimmerman did not recognize Martin, and wasn’t initially sure of his race, but even if he had immediately recognized Martin as black, this would not be alarming as a substantial portion of the residents of the Retreat at Twin Lakes are black.
On the other hand, all evidence supports Zimmerman’s knowledge that a great many thieves and burglars had been plaguing the RATL, and as the Neighborhood Watch captain, Zimmerman had intimate knowledge of those crimes, and the fact that a great many of the known criminals were young black men. The Sanford Police were also aware of all of this and were cooperating with Zimmerman.
We know that the dispatcher asked Zimmerman to keep Martin in sight so that he could direct responding officers to him. We know that Martin appeared to be under the influence of something, and we know that this initial observation was accurate as the State’s toxicologist, in a deposition, testified that Martin was “impaired” by his marijuana use.
Wearing a hoodie, Martin was presenting the appearance of many criminals. When Martin circled Zimmerman’s parked truck, stared at him threateningly,l and then broke into a run, Zimmerman told the dispatcher Martin was running, and the sounds of his opening his door and following Martin can be clearly heard on the recording of the conversation. Remember that Zimmerman was on the phone with the dispatcher until less than a minute before Martin confronted him.
The recording also indicates that Zimmerman was not sprinting after Martin in an attempt to catch him, and we also know that Martin had such a substantial head start, Zimmerman would have had no hope of catching him in a footrace. Zimmerman told the dispatcher he lost Martin, and had no idea where he was, and there is no evidence otherwise. Some have made much of the dispatcher telling Zimmerman not to chase Martin, but Zimmerman, his voice and breathing normal, indicating he was not running and had not been running, agreed and was merely walking back to his vehicle to meet the responding officers when he was accosted by Martin.
In order to keep Martin in sight, as he had been asked to do by the dispatcher, it was necessary for Zimmerman to follow Martin on foot. Particularly in a densely packed housing development, trying to follow a fleet-footed young man on foot by vehicle is futile. Vehicles are restricted to established roads, take substantial time and space to turn, prevent the driver from hearing anything going on outside the vehicle, and require taking the time to secure the vehicle if leaving it becomes necessary.
By the time Zimmerman began to follow Martin, the gap between them was so great Zimmerman could have had no real idea where to drive to have any hope of spotting Martin again. The only choice he had would have been to turn south onto Twin Trees, which would have placed one or two rows of homes between him and any path Martin could have taken, making it impossible to spot him or to determine his direction.
In this situation, the advantage was entirely Martin’s. While motor vehicles are faster than people on foot in absolute terms, their effectiveness in pursuit of people on foot depends entirely on the terrain, roads, the environment (darkness, rain, etc.) any potential cover (in this case, a densely packed residential area with hundreds of hiding places and many potential escape routes) and time and distance. All favored Martin and were against a vehicular pursuit by Zimmerman, or even the police, had they been there. Zimmerman’s only hope of keeping Martin in sight was to follow him on foot, into the midst of the housing development. There was no other practical possibility.
Some suggest that because Zimmerman was armed, he was somehow emboldened into pursuing Martin. There is no evidence to support this view and substantial evidence against it. Zimmerman did not draw or brandish his handgun, and had no intention of actually catching Martin. He did not sprint after him and continued his conversation with the dispatcher as he tried to keep Martin in sight. Because he had no intention of catching or detaining Martin, he had no need to consider drawing his handgun. Remember that he told the dispatcher he lost Martin. There was no pursuit. Zimmerman was merely trying to improve his relative position in the hope of seeing Martin to better inform the police he believed were on the way.
Zimmerman violated no law, in spirit or fact, in following Martin and trying to report his position to the police. Any citizen may drive or sit stationary in his vehicle and watch anyone he chooses. He may walk in the same direction as anyone else, in essence, following them. Particularly if he believes someone is acting suspiciously, he may watch them and even follow them. If that person did as Martin did, it is entirely reasonable and legal to follow him, particularly since the dispatcher, representing the police, specifically asked Zimmerman to keep Martin in sight.
Zimmerman’s position as Neighborhood Watch captain imbued him with no special powers beyond those of any citizen. However, his position did impose responsibilities beyond those of the average citizen. Zimmerman, and his neighbors, surely would have expected him to be vigilant, and to watch for suspicious people. They expected him to call the police and to direct them to those suspicious people, and that is precisely what Zimmerman tried to do.
We can be comfortable that Zimmerman had no evil intent in that he called the police and remained on the phone with them until he–and they–was satisfied that he lost all hope of keeping Martin in sight. This is hardly the act of one plotting murder.
Florida law gave Zimmerman no special powers, but it did not require him to do less than any citizen observing a suspicious person. Particularly since Martin was running away, it would have been entirely reasonable for him not to expect any kind of confrontation, nor is there any evidence he sought one.
Oh, but the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to chase Martin! This admonition, done without knowledge of what Zimmerman was actually doing and seeing, had no force of law. Police dispatchers are often in no position to give advice, having no idea what’s actually happening on the other side of a phone line, yet they are often trained to make a variety of stock responses. In any case, the evidence suggests that when the dispatcher said that to Zimmerman, he immediately complied, and may well have been in the process of doing that anyway as by then, he had completely lost Martin. Remember that Zimmerman was completely free to ignore the dispatcher, as any citizen would be free in his place. Remember too that minutes earlier the dispatcher told Zimmerman to keep Martin in sight.
In determining the validity and reasonableness of someone’s actions, we must consider what they knew or reasonably could have known at the time they acted. This is not only a rational standard, it’s a legal standard as well.
In this case, George Zimmerman knew the number and kind of crimes that had been occurring for years in his neighborhood. Because of his position, he worked far more closely with the police than the average citizen. Some have tried to make something of his many calls to the police, but considering his position in the community, it was entirely reasonable for him to call the police whenever a suspicious or criminal act occurred. In fact, it was what one would expect of anyone in his position.
Zimmerman also knew the general characteristics of the criminals that had been recently plaguing his neighborhood. Specifically, many were black, and they were teenagers or young adults. Most criminals anywhere are teenage or young adult males. Even the black residents of the neighborhood knew this and did not think kindly of the members of their race victimizing them. For them and Zimmerman, race was beside the point.
Zimmerman’s conversation with the dispatcher also indicated he understood the realities of police response. He understood by the time a call could be made and the police could arrive, criminals often got away, frequently having completed their crimes. In short, he understood the importance of speedy response and keeping the suspects in sight until the police could arrive.
There is no evidence that Zimmerman, in his years with the Neighborhood Watch, behaved unreasonably. There is no evidence of him abusing his position. He did not harm or harass others. He did not brandish his handgun or threaten anyone with it, and he surely never shot anyone. He never tried to make a citizen’s arrest, instead, working with the police in every case. The evidence indicates that he was well thought of by his neighbors who appreciated his efforts on their behalf.
What is the obligation of any citizen when they may be witnessing a criminal act? What should they do when they see a suspicious person in their neighborhood? Is calling the police and keeping that suspicious person in sight while trying to direct the police to them an immoral act, or does immorality lie in doing nothing for oneself and for the community?
If this is the case, we surrender our property and lives to those immoral enough to take them. We allow criminals to instill fear in us, and submit to them before they so much as make a threatening gesture. We surrender all of the advantages of civilization and reduce ourselves to a state of nature where the strongest rule before we actually assess the strength of those that would rule us.
Anyone unsure of these issues would be wise to read Jeffrey Snyder’s classic “A Nation of Cowards,” first published in 1993. It’s a brilliant exposition of the issues I merely summarize here. It’s writing every informed citizen should know.
Considering what George Zimmerman knew, considering his personal experience, considering what he was observing, he acted entirely reasonably and morally. He acted to defend his neighbors and their property. There is no evidence suggesting he hoped for or expected a confrontation of any kind, quite the opposite.
In leaving his vehicle, he did the minimum any of us should do. To do less is immoral and cowardly. To do less helps no one but criminals and their enablers.
Trayvon Martin decided to confront Zimmerman, a man who had no idea who he was or where he was. He decided not to run home, despite the indisputable fact that he had more than sufficient time to get there, never seeing Zimmerman again. He decided instead to hide or double back, to actively seek out Zimmerman, a man he did not know. He decided to assault him, and having injured and stunned him, took him to the ground and continued to rain blows on him, blows that any reasonable person would have recognized as having the imminent potential to cause serious bodily harm or death. To do this to any person for any reason outside the context of legitimate self-defense, is not only immoral, it’s illegal.
What ifs don’t matter. What ifs aren’t evidence. The facts are clear and there is no evidence–only supposition–to dispute them. The prosecution’s investigators have admitted as much.
Knowing what any reasonable person in his place knew and observed, George Zimmerman acted reasonably, morally and legally. He did not act rashly or intemperately, but employed proper tactics in response to Martin’s actions.
One person and one person alone is responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death: Trayvon Martin.
UPDATE: 05-31-13, 2140 CST: Diwataman, who has done fine work on this case, has a pertinent post. It’s very much worth your time.