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George Zimmerman, Not Guilty?

We have not yet commented on the release of evidence yesterday by the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case. The evidence is highly illuminating, although it leaves at least one critical question unanswered. But, contrary to most press reports, the overall impact of the new evidence is to indicate that George Zimmerman has a strong claim of self-defense.

Zimmerman says that Martin attacked him, knocked him down and was beating on him and banging his head into the ground. Fearful for his life, Zimmerman pulled his 9 mm pistol and shot Martin. The key piece of evidence that has now been made public is this statement from an eyewitness, which corroborates Zimmerman’s account:

This witness, who was observing from a mere ten yards away, couldn’t be any clearer: Trayvon Martin was straddling Zimmerman and beating on him “mixed martial arts style.” Zimmerman was yelling for help. Finally, Zimmerman pulled his gun and shot Martin. Unless there is some reason to doubt the credibility of this witness–and it is hard to see what reason there would be, since he is simply a neighbor under whose windows the fight broke out–it looks like a classic case of self-defense. This witness’s account also appears to confirm that the “stand your ground” defense does not apply. You can’t retreat when you are lying on the ground with an assailant beating on your head.

Press coverage of the released documents has been absurdly bad. The Associated Press headlines, Evidence mixed for Zimmerman’s self-defense claim. But the AP cites no evidence that undermines Zimmerman’s story, and fails even to mention the critical statement reproduced above. This is sheer journalistic malpractice.

The AP, like many other media outlets, tries to suggest that the altercation was Zimmerman’s fault–and therefore, apparently, he should be convicted of murder–because he shouldn’t have gotten out of his car:

But the original lead detective in the case believed Zimmerman caused the fight by getting out of his vehicle to confront Martin, who wasn’t doing anything criminal, and then could have defused the situation by telling Martin he was just a concerned citizen and tried to talk to him.

But Zimmerman had an absolute right to get out of his car. He had a right to approach Martin and talk to him. He had a right to ask Martin what he was doing in the neighborhood. The question is not whether he “confronted” Martin, the question is whether he assaulted him. If Zimmerman merely confronted Martin, and Martin slugged Zimmerman, then Martin committed a crime, not Zimmerman. Nothing in news reports on the released documents suggests that there is any evidence as to who actually started the fight–other than Zimmerman’s testimony, of course. Further, as I noted here, Zimmerman could have a valid claim of self-defense under Florida law even if he threw the first punch–of which, as far as we now know, there is zero evidence.

The AP mingles relevant with irrelevant questions:

Still, many of the pertinent questions remain unclear: What was in Zimmerman’s mind when he began to follow Martin in the gated community where he lived? [Ed.: Irrelevant.] How did the confrontation between the two begin? [Ed.: Highly relevant.] Whose screams for help were captured on 911 calls? [Ed.: Relevant, but the AP fails to note that an eyewitness says it was Zimmerman who called for help.] And why did Zimmerman feel that deadly force was warranted? [Ed.: Relevant. Zimmerman's self-defense claim requires that he reasonably believed that he was in danger of death or great bodily harm.] Did the fact that Martin was black play a role in Zimmerman’s actions? [Ed.: Irrelevant.]

The Washington Post’s account of the new evidence commits essentially the same errors as the AP’s story:

It is unclear how the new documents might bolster or undermine the state’s case against Zimmerman, who has a Peruvian mother and a white father.

Actually, the documents that have been disseminated publicly plainly reinforce Zimmerman’s defense. But a reader of the Post wouldn’t know that, since that paper, like the AP, fails to disclose the eyewitness testimony recorded above. And the usual bias creeps in:

The documents include information that points to what some have characterized as a sloppy and incomplete police investigation, which initially resulted in no charges being filed. That sparked rallies across the county calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.

As though it were tautological that a thorough investigation would have resulted in Zimmerman’s arrest!

What is going on here, I suspect, is that the newspapers are trying to extricate themselves from the Zimmerman-is-guilty narrative gradually. Rather than admitting all at once that they were had, they will walk back what they have previously written over a period of time, so that by the time Zimmerman is acquitted, or the charges against him are dismissed, they can pretend that they knew it all along. That is how it looks like the case is going based on what we now know, in any event.

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