George Zimmerman: Why did this case stand out?

Staff writer

Day after day, we get questions about the George Zimmerman trial and his acquittal in Trayvon Martin's death.

Those questions raise another query: Dear readers, where are you getting your information?

So we'll answer a few questions to try to bust a few myths or to provide context to those questions. People say they want to have a serious discussion about the verdict, which has polarized the country. But sometimes it seems they just want to cherry-pick the information to support their view.

Question: "The big story here has nothing to do with Trayvon or Zim, but why local reporters like you never mentioned that the DOJ from Washington sent people down to help organizers stir up the s--- making this a racial thing when Zim isn't even white. Why did you fail to mention any of this early on?"

Answer: Because that's not what our reporting showed. In fact, the Sentinel reported the opposite of what you're suggesting. An April 15, 2012 story carried the headline "DOJ 'peacemakers' helped Sanford stay cool amid rising tensions."

My colleague Arelis R. Hernández wrote then: "City officials, local leaders and residents say these peacekeepers have played a key role in easing tensions during some of the most heated moments after Trayvon's shooting."

Question: "A pro-Zimmerman acquaintance told me that there was evidence that Trayvon was actively into competitive fighting.  I said that if this was true it would have come out at the trial or at least in the news."

Answer: The judge ruled that information was irrelevant, and so the jury learned nothing of it. But the information did come out in the news, and the texts indicated that Trayvon was involved in competitive fighting.

On May 24, my colleagues Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner wrote about about Trayvon's cellphone: "The evidence that George Zimmerman's attorneys have uncovered on Trayvon Martin's cellphone paints a troubling picture of the Miami Gardens teenager: He sent text messages about being a fighter, smoking marijuana and being ordered to move out of his home by his mother."

Question: Why did Trayvon's story generate so much interest when so many other teenagers are shot and killed?

Answer: I'll offer my view as someone who followed the coverage. Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Trayvon's family, was adept and relentless at public relations in discussing the case.

In a Sept. 29, 2012, story, my colleague Martin Comas and I wrote: "In the court of public opinion, the Zimmerman side initially suffered one misstep after another while trying to get its message out. The Martin side, meanwhile, shared its version of the story early, clearly and frequently."

"Most lawyers prefer to try their cases in the courtroom," Crump said then in an interview with the Sentinel. "But in my experience, in civil-rights cases, if you don't present your case in the court of public opinion and get media coverage, there's no guarantee — no matter how egregious the facts are — you'll be able to present your case in a court of law."

But Zimmerman defense attorney Mark O'Mara told me that the central legal issue would rest on his client's insistence that he was defending himself when Trayvon was shot.

"The reality is, this case is supposed to be judged upon George's belief, whether it was reasonable, that he was in fear of great bodily injury at Trayvon's hands," O'Mara said then. "To that, we look at some of the evidence. That's what we need to focus on. To turn George into something he's not for an ulterior motive is frustrating."

The jury focused on the evidence, not media coverage, in rendering the verdict and acquitting Zimmerman.

Question: How could the jury reach its verdict?

Answer: How much of the trial did you watch?

It's surprising that so many people didn't see the acquittal coming. The state put on a horrendous case.

State witnesses ultimately became witnesses for the defense. Prosecutors overreached in their opening statement and closing arguments.

The trial will be studied for decades to come because the state repeatedly stumbled. Two big mistakes by prosecutors: repeatedly screaming expletives that Zimmerman had uttered and trying to paint him as a criminal mastermind. If you want to blame someone for the verdict, look to the state, not the jurors.

The jurors were focused on a verdict in a murder trial. They weren't working for social change. That challenge will fall to others.



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