The killing of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has reopened old racial wounds and ignited calls for justice from across the nation.
But as often happens when a local case captures national attention, the hard facts of the killing seem to have been drowned out amid the rumors, shouts and political rhetoric.
The debate has its place, no doubt. But to try to more clearly present what actually happened on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla., TPM has put together a guide to the events that reportedly took place before, during and immediately after the killing.
1. George Zimmerman Wanted To Be A Cop
Zimmerman, 28, once asked a neighbor for a letter of recommendation so he could apply for a job at a police agency, according to the Miami Herald. It’s unclear whether he ever went through with the application, but the newspaper dug up records showing he later completed a one-night-a-week, 14-hour “citizens’ academy” course with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford. A spokeswoman with the agency said: “It’s not a training academy. Participants are not issued any type of sheriff’s equipment or deputization.”
Zimmerman and his wife lived in a community called The Retreat at Twin Lakes. After a rash of burglaries there, he volunteered to help run a neighborhood watch program.
He patrolled the neighborhood with a black Kel Tec 9mm handgun holstered to his side. And he regularly called the local police when he saw suspicious behavior. The Sanford Police Department released a list of more than 40 calls Zimmerman made to 911 from 2004 until the day of the shooting. Many of them are about minor things like open garage doors and kids doing wheelies on their bicycles. But he also called about people he believed looked suspicious.
Despite his passion for law enforcement, Zimmerman had a history of violence, according to the Miami Herald. In one incident, he was arrested on suspicion of pushing an agent with the Florida’s Alcohol Beverage and Tobacco division. The charge was later dropped when he agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program. In another altercation, his ex-fiancee accused him of confronting her and getting into a pushing match with her. The Herald did not find records that Zimmerman was arrested following her allegations.
2. Trayvon Martin Was Suspended From His Miami-area High School
Martin lived in the Miami suburb of Miami Gardens but was staying with his father’s girlfriend more than 200 miles away in the Orlando suburb of Sanford on the night of the shooting. What brought him there, according to the Miami Herald, was a suspension from his high school.
In a report obtained by the newspaper, school officials said they caught Martin with a “marijuana pipe” as well as a plastic bag that had traces of marijuana in it.
The suspension was Martin’s third at the school, according to the Herald. None of the suspensions appeared to be for anything violent.
3. George Zimmerman Called Police Before The Shooting
Like many of Zimmerman’s calls to police in the years before the shooting, his Feb. 26 call showed that he spotted someone “suspicious” and wanted authorities to check it out. Police released audio of the call after the shooting. In it, you can hear rain tapping on glass and the sound of windshield wipers, making it seem like he’s inside a vehicle.
There are a few key moments in the 4:11 minute phone call:
• 0:04 - “Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy…This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”
• 1:35 - “These assholes, they always get away.” Zimmerman says this in the middle of reporting what Martin looked like and where police could find him.
• 2:05 - “Shit, he’s running.” You can then hear the sound of a door open and a beeping from inside a vehicle.
• 2:20 - Possible racial slur. The phrase is hard to hear, but CNN had an audio specialist zero in on it and the possible slur sounds clearer. (Video embedded at right.) There is some debate over what exactly he said, but some listeners hear Zimmerman saying “fucking coons.”
• 2:22 - “Are you following him?” the dispatcher asks. Zimmerman replies that he is. “OK, we don’t need you to do that.” Zimmerman responds: “OK.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com