Zimmerman’s Acquittal, and the Coming Civil Suit

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of Trayvon Martin — a not wholly surprising result, but by no means an inevitable one. From what one can conclude about the jury’s deliberations, with their apparent focus on the elements of manslaughter, the jury wasn’t sold on Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, but they weren’t wholly buying some part of the manslaughter charge.

But the system worked in this case, or at least it worked as well as the system can ever be expected to. Zimmerman had to face trial for his decision to kill an unarmed kid, and was not able to skip away from the shooting without a proper investigation or prosecution. What should have been a routine matter was turned into a media circus, and the narrative of the killing usually vastly overshadowed the actual facts of the case, but that shouldn’t overshadow the basic success that was accomplished — which is that the procedures of the criminal justice system were complied with, no matter what one thinks of the substantive result.

Zimmerman won’t go to jail, because he was able to claim — with no supporting evidence from anything outside of his own police statements — that a kid walking home from the store tried to commit murder, for no better reason than the kid had his feelings hurt by Zimmerman’s decision to follow him in his car. But “not guilty” has never meant “acted in a manner worthy of respect,” and anyone who claims that the acquittal is a vindication of Zimmerman’s insane actions is not someone worth listening to. Zimmerman was irresponsible, and a teenager died as a result.

And, although it should go without saying, Zimmerman being found “not guilty” does nothing to imply, not even in the tiniest amount, that Trayvon was guilty of any criminal acts.

But while the not guilty verdict is disappointing, it’s not outrageous. And Zimmerman’s legal defense is not yet over, because of the fact that Zimmerman has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — money that he is unlikely to prove, with probable cause, that he should be able to keep. While I don’t find the result of the criminal case particularly upsetting, I would be outraged if Zimmerman is able to financially benefit from his decision to kill a kid. Luckily, I don’t expect that to happen. There should be a civil suit here, and all of Zimmerman’s blood money should go to Trayvon Martin’s estate.

If Zimmerman has sense, he will settle any civil claims brought — but nothing Zimmerman has ever done has indicated he has much sense to begin with. Which means Zimmerman will have to produce comprehensive information under the civil discovery process about his actions that night, as well as take the stand himself. And Zimmerman’s criminal defense won’t be sufficient to withstand that.

The Homeowner’s Association for the Retreat at Twin Lakes already settled with Martin’s estate for something above the $1 million policy limit of the HOA’s insurance coverage. Although the specific terms are under seal, and there is no way to know for sure what motivated the HOA to settle, the rumors that have leaked out about the settlement suggest that the HOA had significant exposure on several fronts. Most significantly, it appears that (1) the HOA failed to properly complete the Neighborhood Watch certification requirements for its program, and (2) the HOA had knowledge, from complaints received by other residents, of Zimmerman conducting patrols while armed, in violation of Neighborhood Watch standards (and common sense) and did not take actions to stop it.

The HOA’s liability is nothing compared to Zimmerman’s, and his best move would be to follow the HOA’s lead and settle the civil claims brought against him. But here’s to hoping that he doesn’t take the easy way out — and he’s forced to take the stand.

-Susan

Closing arguments haven’t been made yet, but after

Aside

Closing arguments haven’t been made yet, but after the close of Zimmerman’s defense, my prediction is a manslaughter conviction, by a slight margin, with acquittal the next most likely option, and Murder 2 trailing as the least likely result. Call it a 45/40/15 split.

As far as I am aware, Zimmerman’s defense didn’t present any testimony or evidence concerning how the fight started. Their entire story of the shooting starts about halfway through the fight — call it the “Zimmerman is a fat and slow Dudley Do-Right who was getting his butt kicked” defense. Which is kind of a double edged sword for Zimmerman, because it means his case didn’t introduce any evidence that Trayvon started the fight. It’s counting on the jury to focus on the fact that, at the moment of the shooting, Zimmerman may have genuinely been in fear for his life — while steering the jury away from closely examining his conflicting police statements. The defense’s story is that Zimmerman is bumbling and quixotic, but too inept to be culpable for any harm that resulted.

So if there’s a conviction, it’s more likely to be manslaughter. The state’s strongest case for Murder 2 was always being able to show that Zimmerman intentionally deceived investigators about how the fight started, and that he used his knowledge of self-defense law to deliberately craft a story about why he was justified in killing Trayvon. But since the defense opted to avoid all together Zimmerman’s statements about who threw the first punch, Zimmerman’s veracity didn’t really come into play. The jury could buy that Zimmerman is a reckless fool, who was oblivious of his own limitations and too in love with the idea of playing the hero, but the state wasn’t able to show Zimmerman as calculating and malicious.

In a nutshell: if the jury believes Rachel Jeantel testified truthfully about what she heard on the phone that night, Zimmerman will be convicted of manslaughter. If they’re unsure of what she heard, then the odds are much less likely.

-Susan

Zimmerman’s Statements are the Defense’s Own Worst Enemy

As I discussed in my previous post, there are two plausible scenarios that fit the undisputed evidence in the Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman’s defense is now presenting their case in support of scenario 1: that Trayvon decided to commit murder and beat Zimmerman to death with his bare hands, as revenge for Zimmerman having “disrespected” Trayvon. In making their case, however, Zimmerman has two problems they face. The first is that there is very little they can do to directly disprove the prosecution’s case, as the prosecution’s evidence is largely circumstantial and based on known parts of the record. The second is that the evidence of their version of events all comes from a single witness, George Zimmerman himself — and there are so many points of question and confusion over his testimony that it is difficult, if not outright impossible, to accept his version as being wholly accurate. The prosecution’s job will therefore be to argue that even if Zimmerman’s story cannot be completely relied upon, it reliable enough to create doubt to prove one central point: that perhaps Zimmerman doesn’t know what happened that night, but the events were so confusing that no one else can know either.

I’ve provided below a run-down of the central points for both problems that the prosecution will face.

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The Undisputed Facts in the Zimmerman Trial, and the Competing Scenarios of the Prosecution and the Defense

The prosecution is wrapping up its case against George Zimmerman today, after presenting nearly forty witnesses in total, and having provided the jury with a fairly comprehensive overview of the available evidence. The defense has not gotten a chance to make its own case yet. From the trial so far, we have a rough idea of the facts that are agreed to by both parties. And, based only on the agreed-upon facts, there appear to be two possible scenarios for what occurred on the night Trayvon died.

The first, the defense’s scenario, is that Trayvon, while walking home from the store, decided to kill Zimmerman in order to defend his honor, after Zimmerman offended Trayvon by following him. And the second, the prosecution’s scenario, is that, when Zimmerman followed Trayvon and encountered him in the grassy area between the houses, Zimmerman tried to detain Trayvon, and Trayvon resisted, resulting in the fight that lead to Trayvon’s death.

By my reckoning, these are the facts that both the prosecution and the defense would agree to:

  1. On the night of the shooting, Trayvon stated that he was going to walk to the store to get skittles and a drink. Trayvon did in fact get those items from the store, and he was walking directly home from the store at the time that Zimmerman first saw him. There is no evidence to indicate that, prior to the moment of the fight, Trayvon was engaged in any form of unlawful behavior. Zimmerman was correct in that he did not recognize Trayvon as being a resident of the community, as Trayvon had only been there one week at the time of his death.
  2. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon for a period of approximately four minutes, while Zimmerman was in his car and Trayvon was moving on foot. Trayvon and Zimmerman did not speak or attempt to speak to each other at any point during this time period.
  3. Based on the fact that Trayvon was walking in the rain, and that Zimmerman did not recognize him, Zimmerman believed that Trayvon was either on drugs or in the middle of committing a criminal act. Concerned that Trayvon was a criminal, Zimmerman called the non-emergency number to request that police be dispatched to investigate Trayvon.
  4. Trayvon was on the phone with a friend, Rachel Jeantel, for the duration of his walk home from the store. Call records show that the phone call began before Zimmerman first observed Trayvon. The records also show that, at approximately 7:12pm, the call’s connection was dropped unexpectedly, but that the call was resumed 20 seconds later.
  5. At some point during the four minute period that Zimmerman was following Trayvon by car, Trayvon became aware that he was being followed. After realizing he was being followed, Trayvon continued to walk in the direction of the house where he was staying.
  6. After Zimmerman had watched Trayvon walk for approximately four minutes, Trayvon’s pace changed. Trayvon had previously been walking, but at approximately 7:11:42, Trayvon began either to run, or to skip. Zimmerman, who was on the phone with the police dispatcher, stated “shit he’s running” while opening his car door. Zimmerman, now on foot, moved out into the “dog walk” area, moving in the same direction that Trayvon had ran or skipped away a few moments before.
  7. After Zimmerman exited his vehicle, he could not see Trayvon, who had started running before Zimmerman could get out of his car. There is no evidence that Trayvon saw that Zimmerman had left his vehicle. Both Zimmerman and Trayvon state in their respective phone calls, to dispatch and to Jeantel, that they have lost the other individual. Zimmerman ended his call with the police dispatcher two minutes after he got out of his car, and he remained on foot in the “dog walk” area. Trayvon remained on the phone with Jeantel while continuing to walk through the neighborhood, on an unknown path, and he did not return to his house.
  8. At approximately 7:15:40pm, Trayvon and Zimmerman came into close proximity with one another, while both were moving on foot in the “dog walk” area. Trayvon was still on the phone with Jeantel, but after an initial exchange of words between Trayvon and Zimmerman, the call was dropped.
  9. The fight between Trayvon and Zimmerman lasted between a minimum of 60 and a maximum of 100 seconds. For the last 45 seconds of the fight, there is a continual yelling of “help,” in a desperate and panicked manner, from one of the two individuals involved.
  10. All witnesses and parties agree that, at some point prior to the gunshot, the fight involved both participants on the ground, with one on top of the other.
  11. At 7:16:56pm, Zimmerman fired a single  round into Trayvon’s chest, immediately incapacitating him and leading to his death shortly thereafter.
  12. Approximately one* to three minutes later, the first law enforcement officers arrived at the scene. Trayvon was face down in the grass. Zimmerman was standing nearby, with his gun in his holster. Zimmerman identified himself as the shooter, and was taken into custody.

Based on the above facts, then, either of the following scenarios is plausible:

Scenario 1: Zimmerman sees Trayvon walking home from the store. Zimmerman is a concerned neighbor, and because he does not recognize Trayvon, he comes to the possibly mistaken — but understandable and well-intentioned — conclusion that Trayvon is “on drugs” and “up to no good.” Zimmerman follows Trayvon, and calls the police to come question Trayvon and investigate the situation. When Trayvon skips away and out of sight from Zimmerman, Zimmerman leaves his car. Zimmerman does not intend to follow Trayvon after he loses sight of him, but Zimmerman believes he can gather better information for the police if he is on foot.

After Trayvon observes that a man in a car is following him through the neighborhood, Trayvon decides to skip away from the car, and he heads into the “dog walk” area behind the house where he is staying. Approximately four minutes after having skipping away from Zimmerman, Trayvon makes a decision to go back and find the man in the car. Trayvon does not know who his pursuer is, but he feels “disrespected” that the man followed him. Trayvon decides that he will attack the man, in revenge for being followed. Trayvon either announces this intention to Jeantel, and Jeantel later lies about it, or else Trayvon decides to attack Zimmerman without informing Jeantel of this plan. Although Zimmerman is no longer where Trayvon last saw him, Trayvon eventually manages to find Zimmerman at the “T” junction. Trayvon goes in to attack Zimmerman, while angrily demanding “Do you have a problem?” Zimmerman tries to back away, because Zimmerman did not want to encounter Trayvon. As Zimmerman is trying to avoid confrontation, Zimmerman does not identify himself to Trayvon, and responds only that “I don’t have a problem.” Although Trayvon does not at first take any action against Zimmerman, Zimmerman believes that he is in danger, and immediately attempts to call 911 when he sees Trayvon.

Seeing that Zimmerman is trying to call the police, Trayvon punches Zimmerman in the face. After getting punched, Zimmerman stumbles 40 feet southwards until falling to the ground, and Trayvon straddles him. For at least 60 seconds, Trayvon punches Zimmerman between 20 and 30 times, attempts to bash Zimmerman’s skull in with the sidewalk, and uses his hands to suffocate Zimmerman, who is unable to breathe and about to black out. Zimmerman does not fight back, but does try to protect his head from the concrete by repeatedly squirming away. Zimmerman also yells continuously for “help.” Witnesses on the scene ask what’s going on, during the course of the fight. When Zimmerman begs for assistance, they tell Zimmerman they are calling for help, but refuse to intervene in the fight themselves. After a minute or so of punching Zimmerman in the face, and otherwise attempting to kill Zimmerman with his bare hands but being unsuccessful in the attempt, Trayvon notices that Zimmerman has a gun. Trayvon tries to grab the weapon, and he informs Zimmerman that he intends to kill him with it. Zimmerman manages to draw the gun first, and fires once into Trayvon’s chest, killing him. * * *

Scenario 2: Zimmerman sees Trayvon walking home from the store, and comes to the mistaken conclusion that Trayvon is “on drugs” and “up to no good.” Zimmerman pursues Trayvon, from his car, and calls for police to come investigate. Zimmerman frequently calls police when he observes strangers walking through his neighborhood; on the five prior occasions when he has done so, it has always been to report unknown black males who are walking through the gated community. Recently, a skinny black teenager is believed to have committed a crime in the neighborhood, and Trayvon matches that description. While following Trayvon, Zimmerman expresses his frustration  to the dispatcher that assholes like Trayvon always “get away.” When the “fucking punk” then decides to run from him, Zimmerman, who is armed, leaves his car to follow Trayvon on foot.

After Trayvon observes that a man in a car is following him through the neighborhood, Trayvon is initially apprehensive. He is on a phone call with a friend, and he informs her that a “creepy ass cracker” is following him. The friend, either as a joke or as a warning, says to be careful, because the stranger might try and rape him. Trayvon tells her not to joke about that, and expresses nervousness. Trayvon’s friend then tells him to run when the man keeps watching him, and at first Trayvon says he is only going to “walk fast.” The man continues to pursue Trayvon in his car, however, and eventually Trayvon agrees with the suggestion to get away. He heads back through a cut-through, where the car cannot go, and Trayvon believes that he has lost the man in the car. Trayvon’s precise direction is unknown, but he does not  make it inside his home. Thinking that he lost Zimmerman back on the street, Trayvon remains outside in the “dog walk”, talking on the phone with his friend.

After Zimmerman loses sight of Trayvon, Zimmerman leaves his car, and continues to keep a lookout for Trayvon while walking through the neighborhood. Zimmerman is searching for Trayvon, hoping to be able to find Trayvon’s location so that the police will be able to apprehend him when they arrive in the neighborhood. A couple minutes later, Trayvon and Zimmerman run into each other in the “dog walk” area. Trayvon says, “Why are you following me?” Zimmerman says, “What are you doing here?” Zimmerman moves to question Trayvon, hoping to keep him there until police show up. Trayvon doesn’t know Zimmerman, and in fact minutes earlier Trayvon had been discussing with a friend how creepy this guy was, and how he might be a rapist, or have other bad intentions. Trayvon freaks out and resists Zimmerman’s attempts to detain him. A fight then breaks out in earnest, initially with both parties upright and moving around through the grassy area, and then with both parties wrestling on the ground. Neither Trayvon or Zimmerman sustain significant injuries, but Trayvon, having seen Zimmerman’s gun during the struggle, screams in terror, trying to prevent Zimmerman from getting off a shot. The two are locked in place on the ground for nearly a minute, until Zimmerman finally overpowers Trayvon and draws the gun, firing once into Trayvon’s chest, killing him. * * *

In order to prove scenario 2, the prosecution’s job, in addition to familiarizing the jury with the known facts of the case, was to convince the jury of two basic facts: the only evidence that Trayvon tried to kill Zimmerman is Zimmerman’s own words, and that nothing Zimmerman says about that night can be believed. To bolster this case, the prosecution also tried to demonstrate Zimmerman’s vigilante, hero-wannabe tendencies, thus explaining both his skewed perception of events, and the likelihood that he would try to detain Trayvon.

If the prosecution succeeded, the defense has a big problem on its hands, as Zimmerman has few available options for rebutting the prosecution’s case — because there is no way that he can take the stand to present that evidence himself, and there is no one else who can present it for him. Meanwhile, the prosecution has already presented a witness that was, quite literally, in the middle of a conversation with Trayvon at the time the fight occurred. Rachel Jeantel was, indisputably, a witness to Trayvon’s descriptions of what he subjectively experienced in the moments leading up to the fight. Her testimony is consistent with all the available physical evidence, and she provides direct evidence that, at the time the fight occurred, Trayvon did not have the slightest intention of committing homicide.

The doesn’t leave much middle ground: either Rachel Jeantel is lying, or George Zimmerman is lying. They cannot both be telling the truth. But Zimmerman’s defense won’t focus on Jeantel, because there is nothing more to be covered there. Jeantel’s testimony is itself wholly consistent with the available physical evidence, and the defense won’t gain any ground by trying to contradict it that way. Jeantel may have been lying, but the defense has no way of disproving her words, other than by attacking her credibility in general. And for better or for worse, that part of the trial is done with.

Which means Zimmerman’s defense — assuming, that is, that it is not based on trying to destroy Trayvon’s character — a defense that would be unlikely, because it would open the door for the prosecution to try to do the same to him — has the job of trying to convince the jury that it is at least possible that Zimmerman isn’t lying about Trayvon attacking him.

This post is long enough for now, but in my next post I’ll give a run through of all the problems with Zimmerman’s testimony that the prosecution has tried to highlight. It will be interesting to see how the defense is going to try to rebut those attacks on Zimmerman’s credibility, without introducing either character evidence or Zimmerman’s own testimony.

-Susan

The Attempted Impeachment of Selene Bahadoor/Witness 1: What Part of Her Testimony was Zimmerman’s Defense Truly Worried About?

The highlight of today’s round of witness testimony in the Zimmerman trial appears to have been the defense’s attempted impeachment of Selene Bahadoor — a.k.a., Witness 1, or W01. Her testimony was that, on the night Trayvon was killed, she was at home cooking when she heard screaming or yelling from the ‘dog run’ behind her townhouse. W01 was to the east and slightly south of where Trayvon’s body eventually ended up, and prior to the shooting, she could see figures in the dark outside her porch window, with arms flailing. She initially thought the shouting came from children squabbling, and heard shouts of either “no” or “yo.”

On cross, Zimmerman’s counsel attempted to impeach W01 by asking why she had not previously stated, on the record, that she thought the noises of the fight had moved from south to north. The defense also attempted to show her as biased for “liking” a Justice for Trayvon status on Facebook. Although the claims of bias were easy targets for the defense to pick up, I’m left somewhat confused about the defense’s aim in attempting to impeach W01 over inconsistent (or at least previously left unspecified) testimony.

From reports of her testimony at trial, it does not seem that she said anything inconsistent with her police interviews. And her testimony could hardly come as a surprise: W01’s sister, W02, who watched the altercation from upstairs, stated in her initial interviews with police that she saw a chase that occurred from south to north outside their townhouse. (March 9, 2012 interview: Q: “The direction in which you saw these two individuals running, was it towards your house or away from your house — towards the “T” or towards the street?” A: “Towards the T.”)

So the fact that the witnesses at 2841 Retreat View Circle describe the sounds as moving from south to north isn’t some new and previously unknown revelation. It was known within two weeks of the killing (although the Sanford PD failed to immediately interview W01 and W02 as they should have, a fact that Zimmerman’s defense will now benefit from). But it is not clear precisely why Zimmerman’s defense so stridently attacked that specific portion of her testimony. Because the fact that running noises were going from south to north is not damaging to Zimmerman’s defense, and in fact supports his claim that Trayvon ambused him. Zimmerman claims he was attacked after Trayvon headed north from outside W01’s house towards the “T.” If anything, W01’s testimony is consistent with Zimmerman’s story, in that regard.

But the part of W01’s testimony that is hugely inconsistent with Zimmerman’s story is her statement that, after hearing the start of the altercation, W01 saw flailing arms from two standing figures. W01 was consistent in that part of her story at all times, and Zimmerman’s defense did not actually challenge that part of her testimony. But perhaps the defense is hoping that, by pseudo-impeaching W01’s claims regarding the direction of the fight, the jury will also disregard the rest of her testimony.

To me, though, the biggest question regarding W01’s testimony is why on earth did no one think to ask her in depositions which direction she heard the noises going in? Sheesh. It’s hardly W01’s fault if the attorneys deposing her failed to ask such basic questions.

-Susan

The Defense’s Opening Statement Fails to Address George Zimmerman’s Contradicting Claims of How the Altercation with Trayvon Martin Started

Today was the start of the George Zimmerman trial, and what I have seen so far of the recaps from the defense’s opening arguments have been painful to watch. Even ignoring Don West’s cringe-inducing “knock knock” joke, the defense appears to have done little more than offer the jury a rambling and incoherent summary of the case. West’s attempts to recount a timeline of events leading up to the shooting was, in particular, a confusing mess. He managed to both overload the jury with a torrent of disconnected facts, but also failed to provide the jury with the specific bits of information that would allow the jury to understand the narrative that the defense is trying to sell to them.

One particular item that stood out to me, however, was the defense’s failure to outline the specifics of Zimmerman’s self-defense claim. In his opening statement, West provided the jury with an aerial view of the infamous “T” junction where Trayvon died, and a timeline of various phone calls made by witnesses, the victim, and the defendant. But in describing where exactly the shooting occurred, West can only vaguely gesture to the general area, circling an approximately 1600 square foot area to indicate the location:

The reason for this vagueness is obvious: the precise location of where the altercation between Zimmerman and Trayvon began is going to be a significant problem for Zimmerman’s defense, as Zimmerman’s statements concerning how the fight began are not reconcilable with the actual crime scene.

I have included full excerpts and links to the relevant transcripts below the jump, but Zimmerman’s initial police statements and interviews are all clear, direct, and consistent with one another. Zimmerman states, in three separate statements given in the days following the shooting, that after Trayvon punched him in the nose he “immediately” “fell backwards.” Those statements were Zimmerman’s 2/26 written statement, (“the suspect punched me in the face. I fell backwards onto my back. The suspect got on top of me”), the 2/26 Singleton interview (“And he punched me in the nose. At that point I fell down.”; “I fell to the ground when he punched me the first time.”; “As soon as he punched me, I fell backwards, um, into the grass”; “He punched me in the face and I fell backwards”), and the 2/27 Serino interview (Zimmerman: “… And then he punched me in the face.” Serino: “Oh, so he said, OK, you have a problem now. OK, he punched and you fell?” Zimmerman: “Yes, sir.”; “He punched me in the face and I fell backwards.”).

On the afternoon of February 27, after the interview that occurred that morning, Zimmerman then performed a walkthrough with police. During that walkthrough, Zimmerman started to describe the altercation with Trayvon in the same way as in his first three statements. Zimmerman describes that he was on the west prong of the “T” junction, walking west towards his car, having hung up with the non-emergency number approximately 1.5 minutes prior. Zimmerman then describes that Trayvon was to the south of him, and walking north along the path towards the junction, towards Zimmerman.

Also of interest is the fact that this description directly contradicts Zimmerman’s prior claims that “[Trayvon] jumped out from the bushes.” There are no bushes Trayvon could have come out from, and Zimmerman never mentions the bushes again. But there is a bigger inconsistency with Zimmerman’s statement: as seen in the walkthrough video, Zimmerman’s claim that he “fell backwards” after Trayvon “sucker punched him” cannot be true.

This is where Zimmerman claims to have been standing when he was punched and fell backwards:

There’s a problem here. Trayvon’s body was found 40 feet south of where Zimmerman is standing in this screenshot – and in front of him, not behind him. Shown below (and please forgive the MS Paint diagramming) are two pictures of the “T” junction, demonstrating how Zimmerman claims he was punched. The blue block is where Zimmerman says Trayvon came from, and the direction he approached in. The red blocks are where Zimmerman says he was standing. In his statements, Zimmerman states that he was facing Trayvon when the punch occurred, and therefore facing south. The red arrows thus indicate the direction that Zimmerman alleges to have “fallen back,” in his prior interviews. Also marked in both photos is the location where Trayvon’s body was found, face down in the grass, several feet away from any concrete:

So in Zimmerman’s walkthrough interview on 2/27, when he started to repeat the same version of events he’d given in his earlier statements, it quickly became apparent to Zimmerman that he could not actually have fallen backwards, as he previously claimed. Zimmerman tries to compensate for this newly apparent discrepancy, and for the first time, Zimmerman changes his story of how Trayvon punched him. No longer does Zimmerman claim to have been punched, and then to have immediately fallen onto his back. Instead, confronted with the actual geographical setting of where Trayvon was killed, Zimmerman tells a new version of events: he was punched, and then he stumbled forward 40 feet, at which point he fell on his back (after having stumbled forward) and Trayvon then got on top of him. Significantly, even with this new version of events, Zimmerman’s walkthrough of the altercation still comes up 20 feet short of where Trayvon was actually shot.

Following the walkthrough interview, Zimmerman stops telling his initial version of events, given in the first three days following the shooting. Zimmerman instead switches to an amended, and much vaguer, story. In the 2/29 interview, the only interview to take place after the walkthrough, Zimmerman describes a version of events that is inconsistent with the version he gave the first three times he told the story. In describing what happened after Trayvon sucker punched him, Zimmerman states the following:

When he first punched me. I don’t know if I immediately fell down, he threw me down. I was stumbling, I ended up on my back.

The reason for the sudden change is obvious: after performing the walkthrough with the police, Zimmerman had realized it was impossible for his first version of events to be correct. He could not have “fallen backwards” after he was punched, so instead he claims that after he was punched, he fell down, was thrown down, or stumbled forward 40 feet. Zimmerman is unable to provide specifics as to how he was transported forty feet from where the first punch occurred — or whether he fell, was thrown, or stumbled to get there — but unlike his prior statements, it is vague enough to not be demonstrably impossible.

-Susan

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Identifying Dogs by Name: The Supreme Court’s Unequal Treatment of Aldo and Franky

This term, the Supreme Court handed down two opinions regarding whether a dog’s sniff is constitutionally admissible evidence. Although the sample size is small, there is an apparent distinction between the two opinions with regards to how the Court has handled the identities of the narcotics dogs that were responsible for the underlying sniffs: dogs who sniff in a constitutional manner are named, while dogs who violate the Constitution with their sniffing are not.

In Harris v. Florida, the Supreme Court sided with the canine, finding that the Constitution does not guarantee a right to cross-examine a narcotics dog to assess its reliability. A dog’s sniffing skills cannot be impugned on the basis of a few false positives — because, after all, drugs have great noses, so the doggy was probably just detecting trace amounts of the defendant’s past crimes, or something. And in the 9-0 Harris opinion, the Court waits only until the second paragraph before naming case’s the four-legged protagonist:

William Wheetley is a K–9 Officer in the Liberty County, Florida Sheriff’s Office. On June 24, 2006, he was on a routine patrol with Aldo, a German shepherd trained to detect certain narcotics[.]

Good boy, Aldo.

But in the opinion handed down today, in Florida v. Jardines, the Court was much less pleased with the dog in question. That dog, the Court concludes, was prone to knocking people over; his sniffing was very impolite, too, and involved the dog running and “‘tracking back and forth,’ … ‘back and forth, back and forth.'” (The dog’s behavior was even contrasted, unfavorably, against the polite behavior of Girl Scouts and trick-or-treaters.) In the end, the Court held that it constitutes a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment for the government to use nameless, hyperactive police dogs to investigate a home and its immediate surroundings.

In contrast, Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion in Jardines adamantly disagreed with the majority, finding that the drug dog in Jardines was, in fact, a very good boy. In doing so, the dissent immediately identifies the dog in question:

According to the Court, however, the police officer in this case, Detective Bartelt, committed a trespass because he was accompanied during his otherwise lawful visit to the front door of respondent’s house by his dog, Franky.

Justice Alito thereafter remains on a first-name basis with Franky throughout his dissent. Rather than referring to what “the dog” did, as does the majority opinion, Alito carefully notes that “Franky remained on respondent’s property”, “Franky approached the front door”, “Franky was on the kind of leash that any dog owner might employ”, and that Franky’s handling officer “wait[ed] for Franky to find the strongest source of the odor”.

Alito’s personification (so to speak) of Jardines’ drug dog is entirely absent from the majority’s opinion. Scalia, writing for the majority, not only fails to name poor Franky, but in fact goes out of his way to constantly stress what a bad dog Franky was, noting that the dog had to be “on a six-foot leash, owing in part to the dog’s ‘wild’ nature,” as well as that the other detectives present at the drug bust were at risk of being “knocked over” by Franky’s antics. Poor Franky.

-Susan