Seventeen year old Trayvon Martin was shot by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on February 26th while visiting his father in Florida. Outrage over the case has been growing, and last night we learned that the FBI was launching an investigation. First the background...
Zimmerman had called a non-emergency dispatch number with concerns about a suspicious looking African-American teenager. He later pursued Martin against the directions of the dispatch operator. Moments later, a fight accompanied by cries for help broke out, followed by gunfire. Zimmerman admitted to killing Martin but claimed self-defense. The police took him at his word, failing to perform the drug and alcohol test that is standard practice in homicide investigations, despite one expert saying Zimmerman sounded intoxicated on the recording of the call. The outcry has been over why the police didn't investigate further.
ThinkProgress has compiled an incredibly damning set of facts surrounding the incident. I've copied a few to consider here:
Zimmerman called the police to report Martin’s “suspicious” behavior, which he described as “just walking around looking about.” [Orlando Sentinel]Three witnesses say they heard a boy cry for help before a shot was fired. [Miami Herald]
Zimmerman was carrying a 9 millimeter handgun. Martin was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. [ABC]
Zimmerman called the police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 "to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents. Nine of those times, he saw someone or something suspicious." (One news outlet claimed that he had called 911 forty-six times --in fact the article being cited as proof of this does not make clear whether he called 911 or a non-emergency number.) [Miami Herald]
According to neighbors, Zimmerman was “fixated on crime and focused on young, black males." [Miami Herald]
A police officer “corrected” a key witness. [ABC News]
As mentioned above, Zimmerman has claimed self-defense in his decision to shoot Martin. However, given Zimmerman's intentional disregard of the dispatch operator's instructions not to follow Martin, and to let the police handle it, and reports of cries for help coming from the boy holding the Skittles instead of the man with the gun, there are understandable concerns that an innocent 17 year old may have just been gunned down in the street because someone didn't like the way he looks. The police should have taken the case more seriously. And to add insult to injury, the local police reportedly have a spotty record in dealing with African-Americans. This is one more reason that they should not have dismissed this case out of hand, and one more reason they may have.
The Department of Justice issued a statement last night regarding the incident, and has indicated that the FBI will open an investigation. The DOJ statement reads in part:
“The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the FBI opened an investigation into the facts and circumstances of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation...With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws...”It would be great to live in a country that has outgrown its painful history of hatred and violence. Sadly, it appears that America may still have some growing left to do.