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Tragic Scenarios

March 22nd, 2012 · 118 Comments

I think it’s fairly clear, at this point, that the initial police investigation into the killing of Trayvon Martin was shamefully slipshod, and that George Zimmerman’s shaky story needs to be heard and evaluated by a jury, not accepted on faith by sympathetic law enforcement. But I’ve also been mulling the facts that have been made public and trying to figure out if there’s any plausible scenario that makes it genuinely “tragic”—not in the modern sense of “really sad” but in line with the classic Greek formula, where the protagonists come to grief, not as a result of outright wickedness, but flaws in basically decent characters. Is there a way for this to be a story without villains? Having just written that Zimmerman’s actions seemed unreasonable under any believable set of circumstances, I figured I should at least try to come up with a counterexample. Here’s one possibility that seemed plausible—though with luck, an actual jury will soon get to determine what actually happened:

We start with Zimmerman spotting Martin on the way back from the convenience store and concluding that he seems “suspicious” in light of recent burglaries. Maybe it’s just because he’s an unfamiliar black teenager and Zimmerman is applying a racist stereotype, or maybe there’s something else that Zimmerman misunderstands—the boy is walking slowly to prolong the trip home while he talks to his girlfriend, which on a rainy night, Zimmerman perceives as someone “casing” houses. Failing to understand how creepy his own slow-motion monitoring of the teen from his SUV seems, Zimmerman takes it as a further confirmation of his suspicions when Martin breaks into a run.

Stupidly disregarding the 911 dispatcher’s advice, Zimmerman gets out of his car to ensure he can point the boy out to police when they arrive. After all, he thinks, if this is the guy who’s been breaking into local houses, it would be crazy to let him slip away to strike again, and he only intends to get a closer look and maybe ask a few questions. This would be dumb, but not inherently criminal. He either approaches Martin, or Martin himself finally decides to confront this determined stranger to demand an explanation for why he’s being followed. Zimmerman, in turn, demands to know “what he’s doing in the neighborhood,” meaning “explain what I regard as suspicious behavior.” Martin seems visibly edgy—as you would be with a creepy stranger tailing you!—and maybe Zimmerman simultaneously exposes the holstered firearm, hoping it will deter the teen from trying anything.

But Martin isn’t connecting the question with the recent spate of break-ins, which he has no reason to know about: What he hears is a threat from an armed and menacing stranger who has been stalking him from his vehicle, and now sounds angry to see a black teenager in “his” neighborhood. And when Zimmerman exposes the gun, Martin reasonably concludes that he’s about to become the victim of a hate crime.He could run—but he won’t outrun a bullet, and risks being shot in the back. It seems like his only chance is to disable and disarm this nut before he can draw the weapon. It’s a risky gambit, but in another few seconds, Zimmerman will have time to draw the gun and fire, so Martin doesn’t see any other good options. Making a split-second decision, the football player goes for the tackle, thinking he can get the gun away and hold this creep for police.

Zimmerman, meanwhile, has no idea what Martin is thinking. All he knows is he’s on the ground taking hits from someone who now appears to be going for his gun. He shouts for help but doesn’t see anyone coming, and  doesn’t realize the teen had regarded him as an imminent threat. He assumes Martin’s making a grab for the gun in order to use it against him. Panicked, flat on his back, and seeing no alternative, Zimmerman fires.

This is, obviously, complete speculation, but as far as I can tell, it’s consistent with the public facts—and with the general principle that fear and stupidity are more common than malice. If it’s accurate, both parties would have honestly believed they were acting in self defense. And, incidentally, the “Stand Your Ground” law wouldn’t appear to be relevant, because neither of them would have regarded retreat as a viable option at the time they reasonably believed themselves to be threatened. Again, I think it clearly ought to fall to a jury to figure out whether this is what happened—or at least a believable possibility, once all the evidence is on the table. But I figured it was worth throwing out this scenario as a reminder that we should insist on justice for Trayvon Martin without insisting that we’re certain in advance what that means. We need a real investigation and a trial—not a particular verdict.

Update: Just in case it wasn’t clear enough, I’m not saying I think this is what happened, or even especially likely compared with other alternatives. I’m just wary of repeating the error of the Stanford police: Seizing on the first version of events that fits the initially available facts, and then locking yourself into that as the only possibility. It is, as a rule, a good idea to generate alternative hypotheses even when you think your first one is probably correct.

Tags: Law



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