rethinking the Zimmerman prosecution

This is pretty interesting. Legal analyst Lisa Bloom lays out, in an interview with Salon, the evidence weakening George Zimmerman’s narrative that the prosecution failed to put in front of the jury during the trial:

[W]hat changed was when I reviewed the evidence myself on a weekend. My first thought was I know he had a concealed holster, let me understand how the gun was carried in the holster. And so I looked at pictures of his holster. I looked at that particular make of holster, and how people typically wear it. Then I look at how he wore it…. [F]rom a standing position Zimmerman indicated very clearly on video where the holster was, which was on his back right hip behind him, and so I stopped the video several times and rewound it. He demonstrates three times.

I was so shocked when I saw that that I had to have other people look at it for me. You know, sometimes you just can’t believe your own eyes. And they saw it the same way I did. That really started changing my whole view of the case, because there is no way that George Zimmerman’s story works. With his gun in the holster behind him lying on his back, Trayvon straddling him, and especially when you add in that it was a very dark night, it was raining, and there’s grass. As I said in the book, unless Trayvon has X-ray vision there’s no way he saw the gun, and reached for the gun in that moment, in that position, that Zimmerman said.

So I thought, “If that’s true, then what else am I missing?”


Dr. Bao was the state’s medical examiner who they also did not prepare and they also did not stand behind in closing arguments. He wanted to talk about his theory of pneumothorax, which is essentially that bullet fragments immediately went into Trayvon Martin’s lungs and prevented him from speaking or breathing. But that would’ve dovetailed rather nicely if the prosecutors had argued it with the 911 call, because one person was screaming, bullet shot rings out, and then the screaming immediately stops. And that scientific theory would explain why, if it was Trayvon Martin screaming, he would’ve had to stop. Immediately, because his lung was punctured, you couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t speak.

Rachel Jeantel also said that Trayvon sometimes had a baby voice, high-pitched voice, and the screaming voice is high-pitched. George Zimmerman does not have a high-pitched voice, and the jurors, though he didn’t testify, heard his voice on the audio and video. That could’ve been pointed out, but it was not. The prosecution also failed to put together that Zimmerman said after he shot Trayvon, he was still in fear. He didn’t think he shot him…. [I]f Zimmerman was the one screaming why would he have stopped screaming if he was still in fear? And why would he have stopped screaming at exactly the same instant that he pulled that trigger if he was still in fear afterwards? Indeed when the first resident came out after the shooting Zimmerman said to the guy, “Help me! Help me!”

It’s not possible to say whether the presentation of these facts, with the right framing, would have tipped the scales; the prosecutors still would have had to reach the “beyond a reasonable doubt” threshold. But they certainly could have moved the needle closer to the mark.

No one likes Monday-morning quarterbacking, of course, and the prosecutors may have considered and rejected these arguments for what they at the time considered sound tactical reasons. But Bloom doesn’t think so, because, as she says, they didn’t “stand by” their own witnesses on the stand or in the closing argument. And she thinks this is because the prosecution fundamentally believed Zimmerman’s story:

This case is very different from every other case they had because 25 days went by and they didn’t charge Zimmerman with any crime. Why? Because they didn’t believe that there was a crime. They believed the self-defense story.

It’s easy to demonize the prosecutors, but although I’m very critical of them, I really don’t want to demonize them. And in the second part of the book where I talk about racial bias, and especially implicit racial bias, what I’m really trying to show is that it’s not just a problem for them, it’s a problem for almost all of us, myself included.

That’s why I talk in the book about taking the implicit bias test myself and testing for racial bias myself, which just absolutely horrified me, but it made me consider that this is not about pointing the finger at one person or two people or 10 people and saying you’re a racist with a capital “R.” It’s about understanding deep-seated racial biases that are in our culture; even people that are working in good faith can have them.

I think this is of a piece with the understanding of racial bias I’ve written about here and here and here. Racial bias is not, for most people today, an ideological matter, or a matter of conscious animus. Rather, it’s a set of unconscious understandings about people of color that are so deeply embedded we often don’t even notice how they’re operating on us. Or we are, in some sense, conscious of it, but our rational brains are unable to overcome the pull of our pre-rational feelings — especially fear.

I think that sort of subconscious or semi-conscious bias probably weakens a lot of prosecutions where the victim is black, and a lot of defenses where the defendant is black. And where a black defendant is found guilty, it certainly influences sentencing — both on the statutory level, where pharmacologically identical drugs have carried vastly different sentences depending on what population was using them, and on the individual trial level, where sentencing for similar crimes varies by the race of the defendant and victim.

Anyway, Bloom’s book, on the Zimmerman trial and more, is available here.

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