Knowing. Writing about the George Zimmerman case, I’ve seen many people of good will write: “we’ll never know what happened in this case, but…”. In the most technical, hair-splitting sense, they’re correct. But in consideration of daily reality, they’re not, and understanding the distinction is at once instinctive and vital.
After all, what’s our standard for knowing anything? Is there a more or less universal standard, or are our standards situational? Will we accept one standard of proof from our friends, but expect more–or less–of co-workers or strangers? At one time, Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted man in America,” but now we know he often lied in the furtherance of a leftist narrative. Few Americans actually believe what the legacy media tells them, yet most Americans are also able–if they take the time to think clearly–to tell when that same media can be trusted. That’s certainly a situational matter, but there are standards.
I’ve been married to my wife for 35 years, unquestionably the best years of my life. For my knowledge of her before we met I rely almost entirely on her word, yet I have no difficulty relying on nothing more than that. Perhaps her memories are dimmed by all of those years? Perhaps she doesn’t remember every detail with perfect fidelity? Perhaps she even fails to tell me some things and like all of us, tells some stories in subtle ways that make her more virtuous and admirable than she really was. Yet, I have no difficulty believing that I know about those years of her life, that I know about her, and if evidence someday pops up that might cause me to alter what I believe I know, so what? I’m not going to discover that she’s actually my daughter from a one-night stand I had and forgot long ago, or that she’s actually an alien parasite just waiting for the chance to lay her eggs in my chest. That she was once mean to Bobby who had a huge crush on her when she was 15 means nothing considering who she now is. Perhaps what she learned from that incident was instrumental in making her who she is.
And what about the Zimmerman case? Are we really unable to know what happened? This is not an inconsequential matter for me. In all of my years of police service, it was an issue that daily confronted me. I know, for example, that there are minor inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s several accounts. Why don’t they tell me he lied? Lied about what?
Human nature plays a significant role here. In retelling traumatic events–and few are more traumatic than taking a life, even to preserve our own–we inevitably add and subtract. From day to day, some events suddenly become clearer or take primacy in our memories. We want to be acceptable to others, so in subtle ways, we accent this and suppress that. In analyzing what happened to us, we rearrange and emphasize details that previously seemed less important and meaningful. And because we are a story-telling species, we always want to tell a good story. We’re guided by our literary and cultural models, whether we realize it or not.
We’re a story-telling species? Think about your interactions with others. What percentage of those conversations are little more than story telling? They aren’t usually huge narratives, just little slices of life, short, short stories, if you will, but stories nonetheless. They are the cement of our relationships, ideas and reassurances, indications that others think as we do, appreciate the same things, or in the case of people whose stories seem disquieting, even alien, they tell us who isn’t like us, who is unlikely to empathize with us or appreciate us. It is only as we become more comfortable with others, as we internalize a body of stories that allows us to accept them that we move beyond story telling and into discussion, even debate of issues that matter to us. Even so, we always return to stories, for they change and grow as we change and grow.
We begin with Zimmerman’s account, with his story. That, by the way, is why so many people have followed the case; it’s a compelling story, a story we realize that but for the grace of God, might be ours. As a police officer, a story alone would never be enough for me, but it’s a necessary starting place. That’s why, in the early stages of writing about this case, I was very cautious about stating things with certainty. I knew only a fraction of what the Sanford Police knew. I knew relatively little of the evidence, evidence I needed to know to form an informed opinion–to know. With greater knowledge came greater certainty.
Let’s consider just a few facets of the case:
(1) Why did Zimmerman leave his truck?
(2) How did the confrontation start?
(3) Who was screaming for help on the Lauer 911 recording?
(4) Where was Zimmerman and what was happening when he fired the shot?
We begin, again, with Zimmerman’s account. He was there. He knows what happened, and there are significant reasons to believe that his story was honest and complete. He immediately admitted what happened, to a witness, and to the first officer on the scene only about a minute after the shot. He not only gave the Sanford Police a complete, taped statement without benefit of counsel shortly after the incident, he met them at about 5 PM the next day and did a videotaped reenactment of the incident, again, without counsel. His level of cooperation would give any defense attorney nightmares, but in this backward case, was his salvation.
In short order, he completed not one, but two “lie detectors,” a voice stress device, and “passed” both. Keep in mind that’s not admissible in court. There is no such thing as a machine that can detect what is, after all, nothing more than an abstraction in the human brain. The police use lie detectors for two primary reasons: to help convince criminals to confess, and most of all, to make themselves feel better. Good investigators know that in every case, there will be things they can’t be absolutely sure about. It’s simply impossible to have absolute, 100% iron-clad certainty about everything, but they want that certainty, they desperately want that certainty. The police, above all else, hate to be wrong. Lives ride on their decisions, so do careers and relationships. If they’re wrong, bad things happen to people, often people that don’t deserve bad things. Lie detectors can help them sleep a little better–sometimes.
But that’s not all. Zimmerman had injuries entirely consistent with his story. His clothing bore the evidence of being on his back in the soaked grass, as did Martin’s clothing bear the marks of straddling Zimmerman. Investigator Serino came to believe that it was Zimmerman screaming. He believed it for the same reasons I came to believe it. Before he saw advantage in it, Martin’s father told Serino it was not Trayvon Martin’s voice. And it made sense. Who would be screaming for help, the person on the bottom, being brutally beaten, or the person on top, administering the beating? It further made sense because Zimmerman is not an aggressive personality. He was known for meekness, for being non-confrontational. The testimony of eye and ear witnesses also supported Zimmerman’s account, and those few that did not, were plainly, probably mistaken, perhaps even deceptive.
Zimmerman’s description of the shot also comported perfectly with the physical evidence, and with the observations of witnesses. In fact, that particular shot could not have been made in any position other than that described, consistently, by Zimmerman.
So what’s our standard for this case? Video taken simultaneously from multiple angles from the moment Zimmerman first saw Martin until the police arrived? That almost never happens, and when video exists, it’s usually from only a single angle, and virtually never high resolution.
One factor above convinced me of Zimmerman’s innocence: the prosecution’s continual lies and suppression of exculpatory evidence. There is no greater ringing bell or flashing red light. Prosecutors with a truly guilty defendant delight in turning over discovery, promptly and completely.
Why did Zimmerman leave his truck? He told us, and the non-emergency call and all of the evidence, including time frames, supports his account. He was asked to keep informing the dispatcher of what Martin was doing. Any dispatcher asks this, it dispatching 101: what is the suspect doing from minute to minute? What’s his location? When Martin fled, Zimmerman, trying to be a good citizen, followed, not to catch him, not to perform a citizen’s arrest ala Goober Pyle arresting Barney Fife in that classic episode of the Andy Griffith Show, but to answer the dispatcher’s questions, to keep Martin in sight and direct the responding police to him.
How did the confrontation start? Even Rachel Jeantel, the state’s star witness–to whatever degree she can be believed–said Martin started the confrontation with a verbal challenge–just as Zimmerman did. She also said his phone call ended with a “bump” of some kind, a “bump” that coincides with Zimmerman’s account of a sucker punch to the nose. She inadvertently confirmed Zimmerman’s account.
Who was screaming for help? Zimmerman told us, and the most credible witnesses, the witnesses in a position to know and with no apparent reason to bias their accounts, supported him. Common sense–yes, common sense–also tells us that it is the victim screaming for help, not the attacker.
Where was Zimmerman and what was happening when he fired the shot? All of the physical evidence and the witness testimony supported Zimmerman’s account.
All of the rest is “what if,” “he shouldn’t have done this,” or “he shouldn’t have done that,” or any of a hundred different suppositions. These are other possible realities that could have should have happened, but never did. One reality brought us to this point in time, to reading this article, to considering how we know things–no other.
None of us were there. But do we need to witness everything we know? Some of us may have doubts, but do those doubts truly wipe away all of the evidence, all of the supporting testimony and fact? Believe me, the quality and quantity of evidence in the Zimmerman case is greater–far greater–than that in a great many cases I investigated, yet I was virtually always able to understand what happened and how it happened, to know. I knew because I began with a story–a two-dimensional construct–and built, block by block, small piece of evidence by small piece of evidence, a three-dimensional motion picture, a replay of events. There were always black outs, jump cuts, missing dialogue, but each movie was understandable and conformed to human reality–to common sense. I don’t mean the kind of common sense the prosecution wanted to foist on the jury, but the common sense, the experience, that allows us to survive in the world, to understand that what matters is not what was in a heart, but the evidence, which is ultimately what we have.
We do know what happened on that rainy night in Sanford, Florida. Given the limitations of our senses and intellects, and the physical reality of existence, what other standard of proof could we demand? And if we have to demand more, can we truly know much of anything at all?
What’s your story?