What would Trayvon Martin tell us about his last moments, if he could tell us anything? Unfortunately, there are no recordings of 911 called made by Trayvon Martin. That doesn’t mean he’s not heard on the 911 calls that have been released. It’s very likely that he was. And, if so, that was the last time his voice was heard.
But the bits and pieces of the story from reports, witnesses, and 911 calls come together in a nearly complete story of what happened on that rainy February night in Sanford, FL, when Trayvon Martin met George Zimmerman.
Based on my reading of various reports, I think this is a likely scenario of what happened. Keep in mind, this is unfolding in about 15 minutes; from Zimmerman’s call to 911 at 7:00 pm, to the arrival of the police around 7:15pm.
(Note: In my examination of the 911 calls, I do not examine whether Zimmerman used a racial slur or not. My goal here is to simply offer a likely explanation for what happened.)
During the halftime break in the NBA game, Trayvon Martin leaves the home of his father’s fiancé in the gated community of Twin Lakes to buy some candy at a nearby 711. He buys some Skittles, and a can of ice tea. It was raining that night, and on his way back home Trayvon stopped to shelter from the rain at an apartment building in the gated complex, before continuing on his way home.
On his way, Trayvon catches the eye of self-appointed neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman. Bolstered by successfully foiling a couple of crimes, and helping to solve one, Zimmerman was on patrol that night, armed with a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. The official record picks up here, at 7:00 pm, with the first Zimmerman’s now release 911 calls. Zimmerman reported Trayvon as a “suspicious person,” presumably based on recent thefts in the neighborhood, allegedly carried out by African American males attired as Trayvon was that night — in a hoodie.
7:00 pm – “Suspicious Behavior”
According to the transcript, Zimmerman described Trayvon’s behavior as “suspicious” because he was “just walking around the area” and “looking at houses. Here is where Zimmerman’s perception of Trayvon’s behavior and intentions comes into play, and appears to depart from reality.
Zimmerman described Trayvon as “suspicious” because “He looks black,” wore a hoodie, and was walking slowly in the rain, “Looking at houses.” At no point does Zimmerman describe Trayvon exhibiting what Neighborhood Watch guidelines define as suspicious behavior warranting call to law enforcement. Zimmerman does not describe Trayvon as looking “peering into cars” or looking into windows. Zimmerman does not describe Trayvon leaving the street or sidewalk at this point. Nor does he describe him as approaching any other houses in the neighborhood. He describes Trayvon as “looking at houses” while walking back home.
Nothing in Zimmerman’s own description of Trayvon’s behavior appears to justify his suspicion that Trayvon was on his way to committing a crime.
Already flouting Neighborhood Watch guidelines by carrying a gun, Zimmerman disregarded them (just as he disregarded the 911 dispatcher’s recommendation) again by following Trayvon in his vehicle.
At this point, Zimmerman already knew the police were on their way.
7:12 – Trayvon’s Last Call
Until recently, we could only guess at Trayvon’s side of story. But news that Trayvon was on his cellphone, talking to his girlfriend in Miami, as he walked home. He was on the phone with her for most of the encounter with Zimmerman. The young woman has not been identified, out of concern for her safety. But her story as it has been reported undermines Zimmerman’s story. For reasons I’ll get to a bit later, I don’t see any reason why her story should carry less weight than Zimmerman’s.
If anything, it offers an alternative to Zimmerman’s version. And, as I’ll get to below, it makes more sense in the context of Zimmerman’s choices and actions leading up to the confrontation between him and Trayvon. As it turns out, Next Media Animations (a Taiwanese media company) has created an animation of both versions of what happened.
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, also takes what Al Sharpton calls “a walk no father should have to take,” in Trayvon’s footsteps to figure out what likely happened that night.
According to the family’s lawyer, phone records show that Trayvon and his girlfriend had been talking throughout the day. The account of their last phone call, taken from her recorded affidavit, took place at 7:12 pm. During the call Trayvon told his girlfriend that he was being followed.
Crump said that during the final phone call with his girlfriend, who was back home in Miami, Martin told her that a stranger was following him, according to an affidavit she recorded. Martin had then tried unsuccessfully to get away from the stranger.
“He says: ‘Oh, he’s right behind me. He’s right behind me again,’” Crump said the girl told him. “She says: ‘Run.’ He says: ‘I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast.’
For just a moment, put yourself in Trayvon’s shoes. You’re walking down a dark street. Maybe you’re walking home. You’re alone. The street is empty, probably because its raining a little. As you walk, you notice someone following you. A strange man car is following youth his car. He follows you for a couple of blocks.
What’s your first reaction? How do you feel? Most people would feel anxious. It’s not a stretch to imagine that a kid like Trayvon might be more than a little afraid. Who wouldn’t? It’s enough to make you think that if anyone had reason to fear for his life that night, it was Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman describes Trayvon turning around and looking at him. probably at this point Zimmerman is still in his car. He describes Trayvon as “checking me out.” At his point Zimmerman has been following Trayvon in his vehicle long enough for Trayvon to notice and become concerned. It reasonable that Trayvon wanted to know who was following him and why, or to at least get a better look at the strange man following him in a truck.
Zimmerman describes Trayvon reaching into his waistband. He suspected that Trayvon was armed, but this is also am extension of his initial classification of Trayvon as a “suspicious” person because of his race. Perhaps Trayvon’s hoodie was part of the equation, but considering that Zimmerman was similarly attired, and actually armed, it’s a reasonable assumption that Trayvon’s race was the deciding factor in Zimmerman’s chosen course of action.
To Trayvon’s credit, he didn’t run. He just picked up his pace. This is probably when Zimmerman says to the 911 dispatcher, “Oh shit. He’s running.” If Trayvon had run, Zimmerman might have considered that sufficient confirmation of his suspicions to open fire. After all, who would run from a strange man who’s following him in a car, unless that person was up to no good? If he wasn’t doing anything wrong, why would he run from a stranger following him down a dark street, in his car?
At this point, the cellphone conversation with his girlfriend offers some clues as to what happened next, and again parts ways with Zimmerman’s account. At this point Zimmerman is out of his vehicle and the girlfriend’s account suggests he may have been the one who initiated the confrontation.
She then heard Martin saying “Why are you following me” and another voice saying “What are you doing here?” She told Crump they both repeated themselves, and then she thinks she heard Zimmerman push Martin “because his voice changes, like something interrupted his speech.” She heard an altercation and then the phone call was cut off, Crump said.
It’s hard to say who spoke first. Some accounts suggest Zimmerman first asked “What are you doing here?”, prompting Trayvon to ask ” Why are you following me?” It’s hard to tell who started the final confrontation. Given Zimmerman’s pattern of escalation (I’ll get to that in a minute), I think it’s likely that he spoke first.
This is where the scuffle started This is also where we get into lost time. Zimmerman is no longer talking to 911. Trayvon is no longer talking to his girlfriend. Nothing I’ve seen in reports from eyewitnesses indicates that anyone saw how the scuffle started. Some claim to have seen it in process, or to have seen the aftermath, but no one saw how it started.
Let me make what I think is a reasonable guess.
Zimmerman claims the scuffle started when he turned around to return to his vehicle and Trayvon attacked him from behind. That doesn’t ring true to me, based on Zimmerman’s behavior up to that point. Turning around and heading back to his vehicle suggests that Zimmerman suddenly decided to back down. This would be out of character with his behavior and choices up to that point. Based on the 911 recordings alone, at each decision point Zimmerman chooses to escalate the situation.
- Escalation: Upon seeing Trayvon Martin, Zimmerman calls 911. But he also begins following Trayvon in his vehicle, despite the 911 dispatcher advising him not to do so, thus bringing himself to Trayvon’s attention.
- Escalation: At some point Zimmerman gets out of his vehicle, and continues following Trayvon on foot. At this point, he knows that Trayvon has seen him and knows he’s being followed.
- Escalation: I think it’s a reasonable assumption that Zimmerman initiated a verbal confrontation by asking Trayvon “What are you doing here?” Trayvon responded with a bit of verbal self-defense of his right to be there, by answering Zimmerman with a question, “Why are you following me?
Nothing in Zimmerman’s choices and actions from the time he saw Trayvon to the moment before their physical altercation suggests that, having gotten out of his vehicle and started a verbal confrontation, that he would suddenly turn around and go back to his vehicle.
It’s also unclear why he would do so. If he left his phone in the vehicle, was he going back to get it and make another call to 911? If so, to report what? That Trayvon was still just walking down the street.
He wasn’t going back to get his gun. Having a concealed carry permit, he wouldn’t leave his gun in the car. And given that he already thinks Trayvon is a “suspicious” person, probably there to commit a crime, it’s unlikely that he would get out of the car and confront him unarmed.
At some point, George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin got into a physical altercation. No witnesses so far claim to have seen how it started. At least two saw it in progress, and one saw the immediate aftermath.
So, how did it start? Again, this is my best guess based on all I have read.
Zimmerman demands of Trayvon “What are you doing here?” Trayvon asks in return, “Why are you following me?”
Upon hearing Zimmerman’s question, I think it’s likely that Trayvon stopped walking, turned around and asked “Why are you following me?”
Or, it’s possible that Trayvon stopped, turned around asked “Why are you following me?” and Zimmerman asked “What are you doing here?”
Following his pattern of escalation, mentioned above, I think that no matter who spoke first Zimmerman probably kept moving towards Trayvon, or stepped closer to him and “got in his face,” when he asked “What are you doing here?” In that scenario, I think it’s conceivable that Trayvon may have tried to push Zimmerman (who outweighed him by 100 lbs.) away from him.
It’s also possible that Trayvon got on in Zimmerman’ face when he asked “Why are you following me?” and that was all Zimmerman needed engage. Maybe he pushed Trayvon or tried to grab him.
Either way, a scuffle ensued, in which Trayvon may have gotten the better of Zimmerman at some point. At least one witness claims to have seen them on the ground, with Zimmerman on his back and Trayvon on top. The police report says that when officers arrived, Zimmerman’s shirt was wet and covered in grass, suggesting that he’d been on the ground. His nose was bleeding, and the back of his head was bloodied. Trayvon, of course, was dead.
Perhaps the most telling testimony comes from 13-year-old Austin Brown, who was walking his dog, and claims to have seen Zimmerman and Martin. (The Orlando Sentinel has an interview with him, here.)
Austin Brown, 13, was walking his dog during the time of the altercation and saw both men on the ground but separated.
Brown “saw both men on the ground” but separated. If true, this means that the scuffle was over.
Let’s be clear about this. In the Orlando Sentinel interview Brown indicates that by the time he saw them, they were separated and “someone was on the ground.” Then the screaming began.
There was a scuffle. Then they separated. Then the screaming, heard by neighbors and recorded on their 911 calls, began.
George Zimmerman claims that he was the one who was screaming for help as he and Trayvon Martin scuffled with each other. However, at least three witnesses claim that it was Trayvon who was heard screaming for help. If Austin Brown saw Zimmerman and and Trayvon both on the ground and separated, or even saw just one of them on the ground, at which point the screaming began, that would suggest that the scuffle was over and the two were separated when the screaming began.
If they were separated when the screaming began, then it’s most likely Trayvon that was screaming.
Why would Zimmerman be screaming for help during the scuffle? First, it was one-on-one. Second, he outweighed Trayvon by at least 100 lbs. Third, he was armed. Why would he need help subduing a skinny teenager who was by all appearances unarmed.
I think it’s more likely that after the scuffle was over, and they were separated, Zimmerman finally boiled over. He may have been enraged that this kid had gotten the best of him, bloodied his nose and messed him up a bit. Trayvon may have still been on the ground, just catching his breath and trying to figure out what the hell was happening.
I think that’s when Zimmerman revealed the gun. That’s when Trayvon saw the gun.
That’s when Trayvon Martin realized just what kind of trouble he was in.
That’s when Trayvon Martin realized he was all alone and began screaming for help.
That’s when Trayvon Martin began screaming for his life.
That’s when at least one shot rang out, and the screaming stopped. (Some reports say that there was a second shot heard on the 911 recordings, and Trayvon Martin’s parents believe they heard a second shot. Three witnesses clearly stated they heard a single shot. And the Sun Sentinel reports that Trayvon was killed by a single gunshot.)
Trayvon Martin falls, dead. I haven’t read any reports at police gathered forensic evidence. It would be interesting to know, for example, if Trayvon’s entry wound suggests the trajectory of the bullet, and thus whether Trayvon was standing or was on the ground when shot, or whether the bullet was fired from above, below, or straight on — or whether it was fired at close range or from a distance.
What happened in those final moments is only known by George Zimmerman and Travon Martin.
Was Trayvon still on the ground when he was shot? It’s possible, likely even, that he was to stricken with fear to even try to stand up.
Did he try to get away from Zimmerman? Possibly, he tried to move away even if he was on the ground, by crawling backwards. If he did get up, he must not have turned his back on Zimmerman, because he was killed by a gunshot to the chest.
Why did Zimmerman shoot? That’s a question only he can truthfully answer. He says he thought his life was in danger. But if they were already separated, and if Trayvon was still on the ground, it’s hard to imagine how Zimmerman could think he was still in danger. Maybe he was afraid of what would happen if the police arrive and discovered he’d assaulted an unarmed kid. Maybe he was just angry at being bloodied by a kid he was pretty sure was a criminal.
Still, Zimmerman had one more choice. One more chance to choose not to escalate. If things unfolded as I’ve laid out, even after the fight, Zimmerman could simply have held Trayvon until the police arrived.
Of course, he didn’t.
7:00 – Police Arrive
Police officers arrived at about 7:00 pm. The scenario above unfolded in the roughly 15 minutes between Zimmerman’s initial call to 911 at 7:00 pm and police officer’s arrival at about 7:15 pm.
- According to at least one law enforcement official said that Zimmerman “sounded intoxicated” and was “slurring his words” on the recordings of his 911 calls. Yet, Zimmerman is not tested for drugs on the night of the shooting, even though such testing is “standard operating procedure” in most homicide investigations. (Trayvon was tested for drugs after death. No reports that any were found.)
- Witnesses heard Zimemrman announce “It was self defense,” after which he laid the gun on the ground.
- Zimmerman told officers “I was yelling for someone to help me but no one would help me.” However three witnesses said it was Trayvon they heard screaming for help.
- One witness, a teacher, told a police officer that she heard Trayvon cry out for help, only to have the police officer correct her, and tell her that it was Zimmerman she heard calling for help.
- A narcotics detective, not a homicide detective first approached Zimmerman and “peppered Zimmerman with questions … rather than allow Zimmerman to tell his story,” a technique which can lend itself to leading a witness.
- Zimmerman is taken into custody, questioned and released. Police accepted his story at face value
Police then collected Trayvon’s body and belongings — his Skittles, his iced tea, the $22 dollars he had on him, and his cell phone. Trayvon’s body is delivered to the medical examiners office. He is held for at least 24 hours as a “John Doe.”
Police have his cell phone, but do not attempt to use its information to determine his identity or contact his family. ;
Trayvon’s family discovers his fate after calls to the Missing Persons Unit yield nothing, but calls to 911 brings police to Tracy Martin’s door with a picture of Trayvon — shot dead, with blood coming out of his mouth — in order for him to identify his son.
Tracy Martin identifies his son. He then calls to inform Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton.
On March 3, Trayvon Martin was laid to rest.