In exclusive reporting from Sanford, Fla., Aram Roston offers a new inside account of what Zimmerman told police after the shooting. Plus, read Jelani Cobb on what got Zimmerman charged.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect the court's decision on Friday, Apr. 20, to release Zimmerman on $150,000 bail.
Last December, George Zimmerman hosted a small gathering at a clubhouse in Lake Mary, Fla. He invited family members and some close friends, and he made a brief speech. He wanted to share with them, he said, the news that he’d earned his associate’s degree in criminal justice.
“He gathered us all together,” said a family friend who lives near Zimmerman’s parents and was present at the clubhouse that night, “to thank us for helping us define his life and what path he was going to take and who he was.”
The friend, who asked not to be identified, told The Daily Beast that he and his wife pulled Zimmerman aside afterward and asked him about his career: what did he want to do with his life? Zimmerman responded that he had a specific goal. First, he would go to law school. After that, the friend said, “his ambition was to be a judge.”
Now Zimmerman is wearing a gray prison jumpsuit instead of black robes, as he faces second-degree murder charges in the Feb. 26 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was walking home through the housing complex where Zimmerman served as a neighborhood-watch captain.
On Friday, Apr. 20, Zimmerman was granted bail in the amount of $150,000, and will be released shortly, subject to certain conditions including electronic and GPS monitoring.
As the legal case against Zimmerman begins to grind forward, The Daily Beast has learned new details about Zimmerman’s accounts to various police agencies in the moments and days after the shooting. A law-enforcement source familiar with Zimmerman’s account but not directly involved in the case, said that in his statement to police, he said Martin’s final words after being shot were, “Okay, you got it.”
Locals in Sanford, the Orlando suburb where the shooting took place, and in nearby Lake Mary, where Zimmerman’s parents lived, appear to be exhaling after a month of national controversy and protests. “I hope and pray everything quiets down and we let the system do justice,” said Patricia Howard, a neighbor of Zimmerman’s parents.
Another neighbor, who asked that her name not be used, said, “George is a good friend of ours, and what they say about it being about black versus white is not what it’s about.”
She said Zimmerman’s parents had insisted Zimmerman had acted in self-defense. “What they told us,” the neighbor said, “is that he was reaching for his cell phone and Trayvon Martin saw his gun and reached for the gun and there was a struggle.”
Zimmerman’s lawyer, Mark O’Mara, did not return calls seeking comment on the case.
The law-enforcement source familiar with the case, who told The Daily Beast that he personally believes Zimmerman’s account, said Zimmerman has told three different law-enforcement agencies his version of the events: the Sanford Police Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Justice. The source said Zimmerman has not talked about the case directly with the office of special prosecutor Angela Corey, who filed the murder charges against him on April 11. A spokeswoman for the special prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the case.
Martin’s family is skeptical of Zimmerman’s story, which they say is self-serving. Martin’s supporters say the case is simple: an armed white man, Zimmerman, was suspicious of an unarmed black teenager in his housing complex and then killed him with impunity.
Since the days immediately after the shooting, news outlets have widely reported the 911 calls Zimmerman made, during which he told a police dispatcher that he would follow Martin, whom he described as suspicious. The police dispatcher said, “We don’t need you to do that.”
As has been reported, Zimmerman told police officials that he lost sight of Martin and went around a townhouse to see where he was. Then he claimed Martin confronted him and punched him, knocking him down.
According to The Daily Beast’s source, Zimmerman told police that when he was on the ground, Martin straddled him, striking him, and then tried to smother him.
Zimmerman claimed that he yelled for help, and that various neighbors who peered out to see the fight from their backyards didn’t get involved. Zimmerman, the source said, told officers he was so paralyzed by fear that he initially forgot he had a gun, but he said that after Martin noticed his 9mm pistol, Zimmerman pulled it out of his belt holder and fired one round, a hollow-point—the round that killed Martin. (The autopsy report on Martin has not yet been released.)
According to the source, Zimmerman told police that Martin’s last words after the shooting were, “Okay, you got it.” He said the phrase twice, then turned and fell face-down on the ground.
(Martin’s father told reporters last month that police had told him his son’s last words were, “You got me.” Benjamin Crump, the family’s lawyer, said he doesn’t believe either account.)
According to the source, Zimmerman told police he didn’t realize that Martin was seriously injured, and that he lunged to get on top of him after the teenager fell to the ground. Moments later, a police officer from Sanford arrived, placed him in handcuffs and took his gun.
The law-enforcement source said Sanford police investigators interviewed Zimmerman three times about the shooting. The last time followed a walk-through of the shooting site. Afterward, three detectives grilled Zimmerman at police headquarters in their most thorough and hostile questioning, according to the source. They told Zimmerman they didn’t believe him, the source said, and tried to poke holes in his story.
A spokesman for the Sanford Police Department declined to comment on the case.
The precise details of that story are crucial to the case against Zimmerman. Perhaps the key issue will be who instigated the confrontation. The brief affidavit filed by the special prosecutor in support of the murder charge contends that Zimmerman provoked the encounter by following and confronting the teenager.
Then there are the dramatic cries for help heard on the 911 call during the struggle. Martin’s mother said it was her son’s voice, and the special prosecutor in the case agrees. But Zimmerman’s supporters argue that the pleas came from him.
The source familiar with the case said that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators had Zimmerman lie on his back in another location in an effort to recreate the position he said he had been in during the shooting. Then, the source said, investigators recorded Zimmerman as he shouted what had been heard on the 911 calls: cries such as, “Help me!”
Crump said it was not clear that Martin threw the first punch but, argued that even if he did, Zimmerman’s actions launched the entire sequence of events. “Trayvon Martin had every right to stand his ground,” Crump said. “We believe that Trayvon went to his grave not knowing who this strange man was that was approaching and confronting him.”
The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated complex where the shooting took place, is largely quiet now. With well-trimmed lawns between identical stucco townhomes, it appears almost tranquil. Zimmerman’s home is abandoned. During the month of protests, he was living in hiding, in a kind of self-imposed house arrest at a friend’s house. He shunned daylight hours, and would go out only in the dark to walk his dog, a Rottweiler named Oso.
Zimmerman, who has been held in protective custody at Seminole County’s John E. Polk Correctional Facility since his arrest, is expected to be released soon to a confidential location for his own safety.