What if Trayvon Martin Was the One Acting in Self-Defense?

There are plenty of reasons to believe his killer isn’t telling the truth.

Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.

Family handout.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.

With outrage over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin flaring into protest marches, the city manager of beleaguered Sanford, Fla., where the police have failed to arrest Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, released a crazy-making statement Wednesday night. The Sanford city manager claimed, “By Florida statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.” (His caps.)

That is ridiculous. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law is bad enough, but it’s not that bad. The law widens the circumstances in which people who fear for their life can shoot to kill rather than retreating. But as the Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen points out with italics, Stand Your Ground is a shield against prosecution only when the person who uses deadly force “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” If the cops doubted that Zimmerman was reasonable in believing that Martin was threatening him with death or great harm—or if they doubted his story altogether—then of course they could have arrested him. UPDATE: The police chief in charge stepped-down Thursday after defending how the case has been handled so far.

The only evidence the police have that Zimmerman acted in self-defense is that he said he lost sight of Martin—after following him despite the 911 dispatcher’s instruction not to—and was going back to his truck when Martin attacked him. That’s it. The only evidence supporting Zimmerman is Zimmerman’s claim about what happened.

But there are at least four reasons to doubt what Zimmerman has to say. First, there is the tape of his own 911 call, on which he is agitated by Martin merely because the 17-year-old was walking through the gated community where Zimmerman lives, and then grumbles, “These assholes. They always get away.” Second, this wasn’t Zimmerman’s first phone call like this. He has placed other 911 calls, 46 over 10 years, in which he reported black people for hanging out and children for playing in the street. Third, and most important, is the account of Martin’s girlfriend, who says he was talking to her on his cellphone in the moments before he died. She says Martin told her, “I think this dude is following me,” thought he’d lost Zimmerman, and then said, “He is right behind me again. I’m not going to run, I’m going to walk fast.” The girlfriend claims she next heard another voice say, “What are you doing around here?” to which Martin answered, “Why are you following me?” She then heard Martin get pushed and sounds as if his phone was hitting the ground.

Last, there’s just the sheer unlikelihood of a teenager afraid he was being followed, and trying to walk away fast, suddenly turning and pouncing on a much bigger man. (Zimmerman weighed 100 pounds more than Martin.)

Because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law—and because Zimmerman is alive and can speak and Martin is not and cannot—the assumption has been, as Jeffrey Toobin puts it, that “the question at the heart of the case is whether Zimmerman reasonably felt threatened.” I’ve framed it this way, too. It’s hard not to. But as Jeff Chase, a recent University of Connecticut law grad, pointed out to me over email, you can flip the premise and see Martin, not Zimmerman, as the person who was acting in self-defense. Jeff writes: “Trayvon saw someone following him, felt threatened, retreated, was still followed, and then was approached by an armed man who had 100 lbs
on him. … Because Zimmerman was acting as an aggressor, Trayvon had the right to defend himself by punching, kicking, tackling, etc. Because Zimmerman was acting as the aggressor, his actions cannot be considered self-defense: you can’t initiate and then claim self-defense. The evidence for initiation is there on the 911 tape. … Why is it that a black man cannot be afraid of a white man who follows and approaches him on a street at night?”

Good question. I’m not as sure as Jeff is that the 911 tape proves that Zimmerman was the aggressor. If Zimmerman is telling the truth, then he lost Martin, turned around to go back to his truck, and then was attacked. But if Martin’s girlfriend is the one telling the truth, then Jeff is right. The point is that these are questions of credibility and fact that police weigh and then send to prosecutors, judges, and juries. That’s finally starting to happen now in Florida with the convening of a grand jury in the case. But it’s very hard to believe the cops will get it right at this point. Which is why it’s a relief that the Justice Department is investigating.

There’s another point of evidence that’s been preserved and that could help settle the key question of who did what to whom. In at least one 911 call from a neighbor, you can hear calls for help in the background and then the terrified plea of a wailing voice, “No! No!” Martin’s parents say the voice is their son. Zimmerman says it’s him. Can’t voice recognition software help us figure out who is right?

In my quick reading up on this, I’ve learned (not surprisingly) that this tool isn’t foolproof. Some experts warn that “voiceprinting” isn’t as reliable as fingerprinting because speech changes with age, and based on whether someone is whispering or speaking normally or shouting. But according to the Boston Globe, the British police have used the software to catch terrorism suspects and the U.S. government used it to nab a Colombian drug kingpin who’d had plastic surgery to alter his appearance. If you know a lot about voice recognition and can weigh in on how helpful it could be in this case, tell us in the comments, or email me at I hope there are tape recordings of Martin’s voice that the police and the Justice Department can compare with the pleas on the 911 call. Zimmerman they’ll be able to find.

Read Slate’s complete coverage of the Trayvon Martin case.