Legal Case Analysis: The Zimmerman Case- Post Incident Actions
Zimmerman Case — Episode 5 — Post-incident Actions
Once a person has fired in self-defense, every action taken afterwards will be scrutinized by law enforcement and affect their decision regarding whether or not to press charges. If charges are filed, those post-incident actions will heavily impact the defense strategy. How many times a shooter fires; how he reports the shooting; how he cooperates with police; whether he documents any injuries: all these factors become very important.
Fire Only Until the Threat is Eliminated
In the Zimmerman case, Zimmerman fired only one shot, and that became a crucial fact for the defense. Prosecutors chose to charge Zimmerman with 2nd degree murder, which meant they had to establish that Zimmerman acted with malice and without regard for human life. Had Zimmerman fired multiple times, or had he emptied his magazine, it would have been much easier for the prosecution to paint the shooting as a rage-fueled crime of passion. Instead, the defense team was able to make the case that Zimmerman fired only until the threat was eliminated.
Less than a minute after the shooting, resident Jonathan Manalo rushed out of his home to see what happened. Using his cell phone camera, he took photos of the scene including Zimmerman’s injuries. These photos made it into evidence and proved critical in court when the defense team worked to establish that Zimmerman had been attacked.
After Zimmerman had been cuffed and placed in a squad car, an officer took a photo of his face for the purposes of helping a witness identify him. The photo revealed a bloody nose that appeared to be broken, and it clearly showed other injuries to his face.
Investigators thought to document Zimmerman’s condition only after he had received first aid and his injuries had been cleaned — and they were much less compelling at trial than the images taken more immediately after the event. If they had been the only photos of Zimmerman’s injuries, it may very well have influenced the verdict. Unless injuries are life threatening or severe, be sure that they are documented before allowing responders to treat and clean.
The day after the shooting, Zimmerman went to his doctor to have his injuries treated. He received a few bandages and a recommendation to seek further treatment for his nose. Zimmerman declined to seek further treatment, and he therefore failed to get a diagnosis on his most critical injury. The main reason for this was that he was not sure whether his insurance would cover it or not. Prosecutors contested the severity of Zimmerman’s injuries throughout the whole trial. Had he simply received a proper diagnosis, there would have been no controversy.
Reporting the Shooting
How a shooting is reported can have a significant impact on whether investigators or a jury find it justified. The Zimmerman case is an extraordinary situation because there had been multiple calls to the police before the shooting occurred. Zimmerman himself had called the non-emergency line to report that he found Martin’s behavior suspicious, and they dispatched an officer. During the altercation between Zimmerman and Martin, a few of the neighbors called 911, and one call actually recorded the gunshot. Effectively, the shooting was reported the moment it happened.
Moreover, the officer dispatched when Zimmerman called the non-emergency line arrived only moments after the shooting, and Zimmerman promptly disclosed that he was the shooter and surrendered to the officer. These circumstances worked to Zimmerman’s advantage at trial. Because so little time had passed between the shooting and the arrival of the police, the scene was preserved as it happened, and there was little chance that Zimmerman could have manipulated the scene after the fact. Because the shooting was reported as it happened, Zimmerman was not judged for not making a 911 call himself, and subsequently, he would not be judged on the content of such a call.
Self-defense shooters will be judged on the content of any 911 call that they make. Investigators and jurors will ask if the shooter sounded remorseful. Did the shooter express concern for the person who was shot? Did he ask for medical help? Is he calm or is he distraught? All of these things will be looked at to provide some insight into the state of mind of the shooter, and more importantly, it might be the best insight a jury has to decide whether a shooter was motivated by fear or motivated by anger — which is the difference between self-defense and murder.
The tricky thing about this is that most people don’t act predictably after suffering the trauma of having taken someone’s life. A flat affect might be the result of shock, but it could be interpreted as indifference, so it’s often an unfair measure of motive.
Cooperating With the Police
When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman announced that he was armed and admitted that he was the shooter. He surrendered immediately, and he cooperated completely with investigators. He answered all their questions, he submitted to a lie detector test, and participated in a video recorded walk-through of the events — all without the advice of a lawyer.
In almost every circumstance, providing this level of cooperation with law enforcement without the participation of a lawyer is a bad idea. In Zimmerman’s case, against the odds, there was very little he said to investigators that negatively impacted his legal defense. In fact, when the prosecutors played Zimmerman’s recorded statements to the jury, they created a situation where Zimmerman didn’t have to testify, saving himself from a withering cross-examination.
This incredible result, however, is the exception, and the odds-on best choice is to let investigators know that you are willing to cooperate, but when it comes to answering specific questions or giving detailed testimony, say that you would like the advice of a lawyer.
While Zimmerman’s willingness to give multiple statements to police without the advice of an attorney ended up helping him in trial — against all odds — it did create one obstacle for the defense team: the details of Zimmerman’s story changed subtly from one telling to the next.
The key elements of Zimmerman’s account of the events remained consistent, and they never clashed with the physical evidence; however, there were subtle details that changed. Did Martin come out of the darkness? Or from behind the bushes? What exactly was said before the encounter turned violent? The likely reason these details changed from one telling to the next is that Zimmerman couldn’t exactly remember.
In a self-defense situation, the mind and body endure a lot of stress. The adrenaline released can change your perception of passage of time, it can cause you alter the sequence of events, and I’d you try to recount these details immediately after a shooting, you’re likely to get it wrong. It’s accepted concept in law enforcements. Officers involved in a shooting give only the briefest of statements immediately following the event, and they are encouraged to wait 48 to 72 hours to give a statement.
There is also a tendency for people to want to please an investigator, especially when they are trying to show their innocence. This effort, however, can lead to a unintentionally inaccurate account.
There is a phenomenon called confabulation that describes the human mind’s tendency to “fill in the gaps” when it comes to describing events — and it frequently causes problems when assessing witness testimony. It’s likely Zimmerman didn’t remember the exact circumstances of how he re-encountered Martin, so he filled in the details to complete the story. He likely didn’t remember exactly what was said between them, and he created an approximation of what was said. Was he lying? Not exactly. Was he accurate? No.
Zimmerman claimed that after he fired, Martin said “You got me.” This is not only unlikely, but it sounds contrived. It was possibly a confabulation of Zimmerman’s mind, or it may have been an embellishment to support his self defense claim, but to investigators and jurors, it sounds like he was making up stories. This detail combined with other conflicting details called for tougher scrutiny of all his statements.
Luckily for Zimmerman, none of the crucial details of his recounting conflicted with the key evidence, but it easily could have, and that could have spelled disaster for the defense.
Importance of Preserving the Evidence
An alternative to making in-depth statements that may be subject to misperceptions, embellishments, and confabulation is to make an effort to preserve the evidence. Suggest where possible witnesses may be, where additional evidence might be. Most people show an urgent desire to cooperate with investigators to show they have nothing to hide. Helping preserve evidence is a good way to do it without risking making problematic statements.
Editors Note: Not all the views in this article reflect the views of CCW Safe.
Mike was a police officer in Oklahoma City from 1991-2001, and a federal contractor for the DOJ from 2001-2011. During his career, Mike investigated and testified in hundreds of violent crimes, including shootings, homicides, and other violent felony crimes. Mike was involved in a shooting as a police officer and went through a lawsuit from that shooting. The lawsuit was later dismissed, but his experience is what led to the creation of CCW Safe.