Few cases in history divide the public, but those that do become infamous. The George Zimmerman case, in which an armed neighborhood watch officer shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, is one such example, where the final verdict led to widespread shock and criticism. Oxygen’s The Jury Speaks, premiering Saturday, July 22 at 9/8c, takes a closer look at some of these, including the polarizing George Zimmerman case.
George Zimmerman lived at the Retreat in Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon Martin was living with his mother and her finacé at the time. In September 2011, Zimmerman was elected as the local neighborhood watch’s program coordinator. Between his appointment and the February 26, 2012 shooting of Martin, Zimmerman placed several calls to the police reporting suspicious characters in the neighborhood – all of them black males. On the evening of Feburary 26, 2012, Zimmerman saw Martin returning to the Twin Lakes community while running a personal errand. At around 7:09pm, Zimmerman called police to report a suspicious character, reporting that Martin was wearing a hoodie, and that he looked “up to no good”. He also said “these assholes, they always get away.”
Two minutes into the call, Zimmerman proclaimed, “he’s running”, at which point Zimmerman got out of his car and pursued Martin on foot, which he relayed to the police dispatcher on the phone. He ended the phone call to the police at approximately 7:15pm. What happened next is of great contention, but it ended with Zimmerman shooting and killing 17-year-old Martin 70 yards from the back door of his house. Martin was unarmed. In his pockets there was a bag of Skittles, some Arizona fruit juice, cash, headphones and a lighter.
Police arrived at 7:17pm and took Zimmerman into custody. Martin was lying face down in the grass, but police noticed that his back was wet and covered in grass. Meanwhile, Zimmerman’s car had been moved by his wife before police were able to establish it as part of the crime scene. On questioning, Zimmerman told police he had been shouting for help before her shot Martin. He also had a bloody, swollen nose, and cuts on the back of his head, apparently from whatever physical altercation had transpired with Martin. After five hours of questioning Zimmerman was released on the grounds that the police chief believed there was no evidence to suggest he wasn’t acting in self-defense when he killed Martin. He used Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to prohibit police from making an arrest.
During the investigation, there was suggestion that police weren’t thorough enough, as they hadn’t tested Zimmerman for intoxication. The media whipped into a frenzy, and many commentators suggested that based on evidence it looked like not only was Zimmerman the aggressor, that he targetted Martin in a case of racial profiling. It wasn’t until March 20, 2012 that the Justice Department and the FBI announced a full investigation would be taking place, including an examination of whether or not Trayvon Martin’s civil rights were violated.
The county medical examiner’s autopsy report found that Martin died from a single, close range gunshot to the chest, with only one small wound on his left ring finger. One witness reported having seen Martin on top of Zimmerman, punching him while Zimmerman called for help. A 13-year-old boy reported a similar story, but his mother disputed the testimony on the grounds that police had applied pressure and suggestion on the boy, and only interviewed him five days after the incident, at which time his memory was blurred. The mother also said she didn’t believe the shooting was in self-defense. Meanwhile, other witnesses reported seeing no altercation happening at all, and backed up the notion that Zimmerman wasn’t acting in self defense at all. These witness reports were obviously at odds with Zimmerman’s story. But on February 24, 2015, both the civil rights investigation and the FBI investigation were terminated because of a lack of evidence.
The case took on new life in the media, leading to widespread indignation and outrage not only in the States, but across the world. Martin’s mother hired an attorney and on March 16 won a bid to have Zimmerman’s 911 calls from the night of the shooting publically released. Protests sprung up across the country, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was finally arrested and charged with second degree murder.
More than a year after the shooting, on June 10, 2013, his trial began. But by July 13, 2013, the had jury found Zimmerman, to the shock of the nation, not guilty. Florida’s special self-defense laws made it impossible for prosecutors to prove Zimmerman acted in cold blood beyond a reasonable doubt, and ultimately, allowed him to walk free. The Black Lives Matter movement was titled after the phrase was used in a viral Facebook post about the verdict.
[All photos: Getty Images]