I used to make my living going over police reports and evidence. So that’s what I’m gonna do today. Here is the Initial Shooting Report provided by the Sanford Police Department. It is only a partial report made by the first two responding officers. It does not include the detective’s report or any forensics/autopsy information.
Let’s start with the basics. Sanford, Florida is an incorporated city in central Florida (near Orlando) with a population of 53,570 people. That makes it about 2/3 the size of my hometown. I am fairly familiar with how police departments work in medium sized communities. That is why I am fairly sure that Sanford does not have its own CSI department or a dedicated homicide unit.
One thing I am very sure of is that homicide investigations in the real world look nothing like the ones you see on television. I have noticed a lot of the reporting and commentary on this case is based on the idea that every department has a Horatio Caine who can find fingerprints on blades of grass and who can recover DNA from the killer’s shadow.
On television the crime is always solved and the killer is dead or in custody by the end of the hour (unless it’s a two-part episode). Processing a crime scene or searching a house takes about five minutes and manpower is unlimited. Oh, I almost forgot – on television a murder scene will have about 50 different people wandering through it.
Let’s look a real investigation:
Officer Ricardo Ayala and Officer Timothy Smith both wrote reports. I’m going to go through the events as reported then discuss them.
It was a dark and stormy night. (I always wanted to say that). It really was night time and we know it was raining, but we’re not told how heavily it was coming down. Shortly after 7:00 pm on February 26, 2012, Officer Ricardo Ayala received a radio dispatch to 1111 Retreat View Circle to check out a report of a suspicious person. While he was en route to the scene he was notified by police dispatch that there had been calls reporting shots fired in that same area.
The only thing that jacks up a police officer’s adrenaline more than a “shots fired” call are the words “officer down.” It’s a safe bet that every officer who heard that call was heading to the scene Code Three.
If you look at the picture at the top of the post you can see the letter “A” designating 1231 Twin Trees Lane. 2821 Retreat View Circle is the building immediately to its right. Here is a closer view:
The scene is located inside a gated condominium community named The Retreat at Twin Lakes. As you can see there is a grassy space and a sidewalk between the buildings. It is unclear exactly where the incident took place or how much lighting and visibility was available.
The first officer to arrive on the scene was Timothy Smith. Here’s his report:
As Smith arrived he was advised of the shots fired reports and that there was someone laying on the grass between 1231 Twin Trees Lane and 2821 Retreat View Circle. Smith walked between the buildings and saw Zimmerman standing there and Trayvon lying face down on the grass. Zimmerman told Smith he shot Trayvon and informed the officer that he was still armed. This is a standard requirement for people with concealed weapons permits when they are contacted by the police.
We can safely assume that Smith already had his weapon drawn and pointed at Zimmerman. If Smith received the same training I did he would have ordered Zimmerman to get on the ground, face down and spread-eagled before proceeding to cuff and search him. Regardless of technique, Smith cuffed and searched Zimmerman, finding his pistol in a waistband holster.
Smith stated in his report that Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of his head. He also stated that Zimmerman’s back was wet and had grass on it. About this time a bunch of different things start happening.
Officer Ayala arrived. Smith told Ayala that he had not checked Treyvon. Ayala checked him and got no response. About then other officers arrived and they started CPR. While they were trying to revive Treyvon, Smith took Zimmerman to his patrol car. He states that Zimmerman received treatment for his injuries, during which time he stated “I was yelling for someone to help me, but nobody would help me.” Smith did not question Zimmerman. He transported him the the police department and placed him in an interview room where he was later questioned by Investigator Singleton.
When Ayala arrived he found Smith holding Zimmerman at gunpoint. While Smith was dealing with Zimmerman, Ayala checked Trayvon but got no response. Sgt. Raimondo arrived and he and Ayala began CPR. Sgt McCoy arrived and took over CPR from Ayala. Paramedics arrived and took over CPR from the police. At approximately 7:30 pm Trayvon was declared dead by paramedics.
Officers Mead and Wagner began marking the scene with crime scene tape. Officer Robertson began a crime scene log. Lt. Taylor arrived and told dispatch to have Major Crimes respond to the scene. Mead and Wagner began taking witness statements. The Major Crimes unit arrives and takes over the investigation.
So far we have nine cops and at least two paramedics at the crime scene. It would not surprise me if there weren’t a few more cops there as well. Not only that but according to the face sheet of the report the scene was processed by someone named Diana Smith. That’s at least twelve people. At some point there would have one or two people from the medical examiner’s office there to bag and tag the body. Forensics would be a big mess.
I’m guessing that Lt. Taylor, Diana Smith and the Major Crimes detective were on-call rather than on-duty. It is unclear who Diana Smith works for. Homicide investigations only take place a few times a year in most medium and small communities. Here where I live crime scene techs work for the state department of justice and work out of a regional crime lab serving all the agencies in a multi-county area.
My crime scene training was simple: Secure the scene and check it for additional victims and/or suspects. Get out and stay out until the investigators arrive.
The first two officers (Ayala and T. Smith) did a pretty good job. Smith handcuffed Zimmerman and searched him, securing his pistol (priority #1 is officer safety). Then he took Zimmerman to his patrol car, got him first aid, then transported him to the police station where he was kept on ice until he could be interviewed by the investigator assigned to the case. Smith didn’t question Zimmerman but was listening in case he made any spontaneous statements. Pretty much textbook.
Ayala checked Trayvon and administered CPR. He was designated as the initial reporting officer. This is just routine procedural stuff, he wasn’t going to do the investigation. Had it turned out to be a minor incident his report might have been the only one made. If you look at the time he turned in his report it was after 3:00 am, so he was probably at the scene for several hours.
But neither officer was in charge after Sgt. Raimondo arrived. Either Raimondo or McCoy was calling the shots until Lt. Taylor took over. Chances are Taylor was looking over Investigator Singleton’s shoulder too.
Here’s an idea of what took place after Trayvon was declared dead:
Everyone stood around with their thumbs up their asses and scratching their balls until Singleton arrived on the scene. Extraneous officers were ordered back to their patrol duties. When Singleton arrived the official investigation begins. Some pictures are taken of the scene from various angles.
At some point someone from the medical examiner’s office arrives with the meat wagon. Trayvon’s body is now evidence so it has to be “collected” properly and a chain of evidence maintained. The first thing the ME people do is shove a big meat thermometer into Trayvon’s abdomen to obtain his liver temperature. The ambient temperature is also noted. This is to determine official time of death.
Depending on departmental procedure Trayvon’s clothes may or may not have been searched at the scene. When they have done all the on-scene stuff they are supposed to do, Trayvon’s body is bagged and removed from the scene then transported to wherever autopsies are performed. The autopsy probably took place the next day.
The scene is then processed. This includes examining the area to look for bloodstains and other evidence, and the collection of same. In this case I wouldn’t expect to find much. There should be an ejected cartridge laying somewhere. Unless there was an exit wound in Trayvon’s back there wouldn’t be a slug to search for and there would only be one main pool of blood. Between the rain and everyone trampling through the scene there won’t be much else to find. There is no indication that anything else was found.
Even so, all of this would have taken a few hours. At some point Singleton went to the police department and interviewed Zimmerman. I’m guessing it was at least 2-3 hours after the shooting. There were just too many things Singleton had to do first.
Suspect interviews are one of the most critical parts of an investigation. If it was me the first thing I would have done is mirandize Zimmerman. Some cops don’t like to do that for fear the suspect will invoke but my experience is that, guilty or innocent, people like to talk. I would also want the interview (including the reading of rights) to be videotaped. I would make sure I did everything right because I would not want any confession or admission excluded on a technicality.
Assuming the suspect wants to talk my first question would be simple – “Tell me what happened.” Then I would sit there and let him talk until he stopped. Whenever he slowed down or stopped I would ask open-ended type questions to keep him going.
Then once he had gone through the whole thing once I would have him go back over it in more detail. No matter what I thought of what he was telling me I would let him tell it. If he wants to lie, let him lie. Then I would go over it again and again.
I would never raise my voice or threaten. I’m not really a believer in games either. After the second or third time through I would start focusing on inconsistencies (if there were any) and I might deliberately pretend to misunderstand something he said to see if he corrects me or not. You would be surprised how many guilty people are eager to confess.
By the time Singleton was done interviewing Zimmerman and processing the scene this is what the police had:
Zimmerman saw Trayvon and called 911 to report him as a suspicious person. Zimmerman said Trayvon was running away and started to follow. Zimmerman said he was returning to his vehicle when Trayvon attacked him. Zimmerman sustained injuries to his nose and back of his head.
A witness saw Trayvon on top of Zimmerman, beating him. He said Zimmerman was yelling for help. Other witnesses heard a man yelling for help and a gunshot. No one saw the fight start or the actual shooting. Zimmerman said he was in fear for his life and shot Trayvon in self-defense. Trayvon was unarmed.
Zimmerman’s story was consistent with the witness statements and the physical evidence. They have enough evidence to arrest Zimmerman for a violation of Florida Statute 782.11:
782.11 Unnecessary killing to prevent unlawful act.—Whoever shall unnecessarily kill another, either while resisting an attempt by such other person to commit any felony, or to do any other unlawful act, or after such attempt shall have failed, shall be deemed guilty of manslaughter, a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
In California the charge would be involuntary manslaughter. It’s what’s know as “imperfect self-defense.” Self-defense is still a valid defense if the defendant had a genuine fear for his life and that believe was reasonable.
Let’s say someone pointed a fake gun at you and tried to rob you. You’re not in real danger of getting shot but you think you are. That belief would be reasonable. But let’s say he just pointed his finger at you. Even if you genuinely believed his finger was loaded, that belief would not be reasonable.
Normally you can’t use deadly force to avoid getting beat up. But if you honestly and reasonably fear your assailant is going to do more than beat you up you can use deadly force even though they are unarmed. Whether or not you are justified in using deadly force is normally a question of fact for a jury. But a prosecutor has both discretion and a duty to only bring cases they believe they can win.
Here’s the deal: They might have had probable cause to arrest but did they have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of Zimmerman’s guilt? It is very common for police to wait until the investigation is complete before making any arrests. There were still some things they didn’t know that night.
Indications are that the police did not identify Trayvon until the next morning. Without his identity they had no way to check for a criminal record. Toxicology reports won’t be available for a few days either. What if the police arrested Zimmerman and then discovered that Trayvon was a known gang-member who was high on cocaine when he was killed?
Actually, the toxicology report may be the only interesting thing to come out of the autopsy. We know he was shot and who shot him. The CPR attempt would have really messed-up any forensic evidence on the skin and clothing. If the toxicology report shows drugs or alcohol in Trayvon’s system that will help Zimmerman.
If I was the defense investigator I would want to know a lot more about Trayvon. Where was he staying? When did he leave the house? Where did he go? Is the place he was killed between those two points? I once won a case where a girl said my client and another boy tried to rape her on the way home from school. One problem with her story was that the place she said it happened was the opposite direction from her home. That’s why you check these things out.
The media says he walked to 7-11 to buy an iced tea and some skittles. According to Google the nearest 7-11 is almost two miles away and it was dark and raining. My kids wouldn’t walk next door on a rainy night, but then I’m from California. What time did he arrive at 7-11? There should be a register receipt showing a purchase of an iced tea and Skittles with a time and date stamped on it.
Trayvon was on suspension from school. His family says it was for a minor violation. I’ve heard two versions of what he was suspended for – one was for being in a restricted area and the other was for excessive tardiness. I’ve also heard it was for five days and another version says ten days. Ten days is two weeks – that’s kinda excessive for being tardy to class. I don’t know if either of those versions are true but I would want to find out.
The family and friends of Trayvon would like us to believe he was an innocent and peace-loving young man who never had an evil thought in his life. They have supplied the media with pictures of Trayvon that were taken two or three years ago.
Young men of all colors commit serious crimes every day. Some are barely in their teens. I am not insinuating that Trayvon was one of them, but if he was I sure would like to find out. A thorough investigation would look into both men’s past histories.
Investigations are always going to be affected by bias and subjective factors. When you speak to witnesses and suspects you can’t help forming opinions as to who (if anyone) is telling you the truth. I’m guessing that the cops felt that Zimmerman was being sincere and honest. If he was arrested and tried then a jury would use their own judgment to basically do the same thing, but the opinions and reactions of the police play a big role in what a jury sees and hears.
In law school you learn that the testimony of one witness, if believed, is sufficient to support a verdict. If one witness says the blue car ran a red light and hit the white car and twenty witnesses say it was the white car that ran the red light and the jury believes that one witness over the twenty then that’s okay.
When we talk about “weighing” the evidence we don’t mean quantity, we mean quality. Juries hear the testimony and look at the physical evidence and then they decide what the facts are. Findings of fact are rarely overturned on appeal.
Prosecutors have an ethical duty not to prosecute cases if they believe the defendant is innocent or if they can’t win. Let’s say a prosecutor knows the defendant is guilty but can’t prove it. He knows the defendant is guilty because he made a signed confession. But the prosecutor can’t prove he’s guilty because the judge threw out the confession and that was all they had. The prosecutor has no choice – he has to drop the charges.
In this case the question is whether they can they prove Zimmerman is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Maybe. But then again maybe not. We don’t know exactly how strong or weak the case is. Should they prosecute Zimmerman anyway just to satisfy the
lynch mob public?
Maybe Zimmerman is a cold-blooded killer who staged the whole incident so he could murder Trayvon and get away with it. I would have to say that was possible but highly unlikely. But maybe a few years from now he starts bragging about how he got away with murder. In that case he could still be tried.
But what if he really is innocent? Imagine an angry jury voting to convict him because they are outraged by what they heard in the media. Jurors aren’t supposed to pay attention to that stuff but they often do anyway.
Sometimes shit happens. Undercover and off-duty cops get shot and killed by other cops. Wild Bill Hickock killed one of his own deputies by accident. If a bullet has your name on it then it will find you. Fate is a dreadful bride.
I suspect that Trayvon and Zimmerman were both sure that they were in the right that evening. Once the confrontation started it quickly escalated out of control. I’m just wondering how many other young black men have been killed since the night Trayvon died?
Doesn’t anyone care about them?