Judd Legum of Think Progress delivers the "five of the most important" questions of the Trayvon Martin investigation. Question 1 brings a smile:
1. What was the purported “conflict” that required the initial prosecutor to step down? On March 22 — after several weeks on the job — state attorney Norm Wolfinger stepped down from his role as prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin case. Wolfinger relinquished his post after meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi. He said it was necessary for him to step aside to preserve “the integrity of this investigation,” adding he wanted to avoid “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” He did not explain why his continued involvement would damage the integrity of the case or explain the potential conflict he was seeking to avoid. Did anyone at the prosecutor’s office know Zimmerman or his family? [Orlando Sentinel]
Interesting. The family had demanded a new investigation, they got one, and it is Very Suspicious! Had they not gotten a new investigation, well, that would be Very Suspicious too. The state can't win for playing.
The family and their attorneys had been screaming that the Sanford PD had botched the investigation, that a new look was needed, and that the Feds ought to step in. For flavor, here is a NY Times headline and an Orlando Sentinel clip. The Times, March 16:
Justice Department Investigation Is Sought in Florida Teenager’s Shooting Death
The Sentinel, March 17 (same story, the 911 calls, but the next day's dateline)
Both lawyers characterized what they heard as "murder" and said Zimmerman should be arrested immediately and federal authorities should take over the case.
At a press conference Friday morning, Trayvon's parents said that in the three weeks since he was killed, their trust in the Sanford Police Department has disappeared.
Tracy Martin, father of the slain teen, told reporters he felt "betrayed" by law enforcement investigating his son's death because they have not arrested the shooter.
"It's a shame that he's [Trayvon] not getting any justice. We're not, as a family, getting any closure," the elder Martin said. "I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department and there's no way that I can still trust them in investigating this crime."
So the state appoints a new prosecutor with no ties to the Sanford PD or the city of Sanford, and Suspicions Are Raised. Let's clip a bit more from the linked story announcing the new prosecutor, since Mr. Legum's excerpter seems to have broken:
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, removing the state attorney who had been considering the case.
Scott and Bondi appointed State Attorney Angela B. Corey, whose office handles cases in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.
Also on Thursday, Scott created a task force headed by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to review Florida's 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force if they think their lives or others' are in imminent danger or they face "great bodily harm."
Brevard-Seminole State Attorney Norm Wolfinger relinquished the investigation after a talk with Scott and Bondi, according to a statement from the governor's office. Wolfinger signed a letter requesting the special prosecutor, saying he was acting "with the intent of toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of this investigation."
"In the interest of the public safety of the citizens of Seminole County and to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, I would respectfully request the executive assignment of another state attorney for the investigation and any prosecution arising from the circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon B. Martin," Wolfinger wrote.
...Scott said he is creating the task force on the gun law because of the public outcry over the case.
Benjamin Jealous, president and chief executive of the national NAACP, and Turner Clayton, president of the Seminole County NAACP, applauded the move but said they would not rest until Zimmerman is arrested and convicted.
As to what that conflict of interest might have been, I will offer the obvious guess in a moment. But the notion that there is some mysterous conflict of interest that mysteriously prompted the sudden withdrawal of the prosecutor, and that this is the most important question swirling about the case, is absurd. The public was howling and the prosecutor was scalped.
Now, the obvious conflict: the endgame for Ben Crump, the Martin family attorney, is justice for the family; "justice" with Mr. Crump typically includes a big payday from a civil wrongful death suit. Since a big settlement requires a deep-pocketed defendant, the City of Sanford is a likely place to look.
Thus, as with every other city in America, there is a tension between the goal of investigating crimes and the goal of sparing the taxpayers from huge bills attributable to police misbehavior. The solution in this country has not been to have the Feds investigate everything but it may be that in this case the City of Sanford really does have a bit of a stake in clearing their police department.
OK, tying the City of Sanford to the death won't be easy, but... normally gun permits are granted at the local level - how did Sanford handle that? [Answer - by not doing it; Rob Crawford tells us that the FL Dept of Ag And Conumer Services handles gun permits; sue them] I would start there. Criticizing them for a slow respnse to the 911 calls looks hopeless, but who knows - even a minute could have saved a life, so evidence that a responding officer settled his tab at the doughnut shop before rolling could be critical.
Could there be other conflicts? George Zimmerman's dad was a retired magistrate somewhere, and may have friends in the Florida justice system. Yeah, yeah. I would start with looking at the money.
And lest they have not realized it already - I am sure that most of the folks screaming for an immediate arrest of George Zimmerman on no evidence are well intentioned (despite a hazy grasp of US law, whch likes to see probable cause). However, Ben Crump very much needs an arrest and, even better, a criminal trial,to advance his eventual civil suit.
The OJ Simpson civil jury famously overcame his criminal acquital and (due to a different jury and a lower burden of proof) found him civily liable for the death of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman. Ben Crump can overcome an eventual acquital, but arguing wrongful death when no one has been arrested probably exceeds even his skills. IANAL, so I welcome guidance from the ambulance chasers distingished jurists out there.
HEY, SHOULDN'T 'MR. WONDERFUL' KEEP GOING? Not a bad question...
OK, I can quit anytime, but (2) is a layup:
2. Why did the prosecutor ignore the recommendations of the lead homicide investigator? ABC News reported that Chris Serino, the lead homicide investigator on the Trayvon Martin case, recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter on the night of the shooting. Serino filed an affidavit that night stating “he was unconvinced Zimmerman’s version of events.” As the lead homicide investigator, Serino was: 1. In the best position to evaluate Zimmerman’s credibility, and 2. Intimately familiar with Florida law. Why was he ignored?
Really? First, as noted the person who ignored the recommendation is out and we don't know what will happen next.
Secondly, from my extensive review of Law and Order it is not unusual for investigators to have a gut feel that the suspect is lying and for prosecutors to insist that unless the invvestigators entrails can testify, actual charges and an actual trial require actual evidence. C'mon, that scene is staged 12 times a day every day on cable. Is "real life" really that different? Let's cut back to Ta Nehisi-Coates and his advice from a former homicide prosecutor from Florida:
1.) I don't believe Mr. Zimmerman's story (presuming that what is in the report is truly what he told the police), but more importantly,
2.) What prosecutors believe is not nearly as important as what they can prove. I can not stress this enough, and my mind is about to explode with all of nonsense being written about what the government can and cannot do. It is up to the government, not anyone else, to prove that Zimmerman is lying.
Third, who knows how the wind was blowing on this case, or an other? It may be that the lead investigator routinely urges prosecution figuring (a) it won't be his sorry ass in the courtroom with no case, and (b) no one can ever call him 'weak on crime' later, since he wants to try everyone on someone else's dime.
Or maybe the lead investigator could see pretty quickly that the fecal matter and the whirling fan were colliding on this case, so he went into CYA mode and recommended prosecution based on evidence he couldn't turn up.
Frankly, if I were the prosecutor I would be deeply irked by this back-stabbing and would strongly urge the guy to do his job and develop the case or STFU. But whatever. As to the idea that this is an important Unsolved Mystery, well, send better questions.
QUITTING SOON BUT... (3) is not that better question:
3. Why did then-Police Chief Bill Lee make public statements directly contradicting the official recommendations of the police department? On the day the Sanford Police concluded their investigation and handed over the case to the prosecutor, then-Police Chief Bill Lee stated publicly that there was no “probable cause” to arrest or charge Zimmerman. (Lee has subsequently “temporarily” stepped down from his post.) But the Miami Herald reports that on the same day the Sanford Police formally requested that the prosecutor charge Zimmerman, something known as a “capias” request. [ThinkProgress]
“The evidence doesn’t establish so far that Mr. Zimmerman did not act in self-defense,” Chief Bill Lee of the Sanford police said this week, responding to why Mr. Zimmerman had not been arrested. He said he would welcome a federal investigation. “We don’t have anything to dispute his claim of self-defense at this point.”
Oh, let's proudly show our commitment to recycling! Here is one of the Sanford investigators, on the record and hinting at dissension back on March 17 in the Orlando Sentinel:
Investigator Chris Serino of Sanford police said Friday the agency has worked closely with prosecutors, and have not arrested Zimmerman because prosecutors have consistently told them they do not have enough evidence to win a manslaughter conviction.
That's because Zimmerman says he was defending himself, something he's allowed to do under Florida law.
On my scorecard I just won 3 and 2, but never having won at match play before, I might be wrong.
NEWTON MAY HAVE BEEN RIGHT ABOUT MOMENTUM:
4. Who leaked Trayvon Martin’s school records? As public outrage increased, Zimmerman’s sympathizers launched a smear campaign against Trayvon Martin. This included details of several occasions where Martin was suspended for minor infractions (defacing a locker, possessing an empty “marijuana baggie.”) None of the information seemed to have any particular relevance to the night Trayvon Martin was shot to death. Was this a ham-handed attempt by the police or the prosecutor to defend their lack of action against Zimmerman?
As to relevance, Zimerman's critics insist he engaged in racial profiling. On the 911 call, he says Martin looked like he was on drugs; a school suspension for drug use might time in to that (a tox screen might be helpful, although I am far from an expert on how accurately those tests determine timing of drug use) and suggest that Zimmerman actually did see someone staggering down the street in a drug-induced haze.
But set that aside - yes, it was a ham-handed attempt to bolster the "Save George (and our jobs)" faction. No kidding. So what? People who thought that the month long campaign to tar Zimmerman and the Sanford PD as racist would go unanswered were probably not thinking.
And why not:
5. Why was Trayvon Martin’s body tagged as a John Doe? The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart notes a police report “that was completed at 3:07 a.m. on Feb. 27 lists Trayvon’s full name, city of birth, address and phone number.” But yet, Trayvon’s body was reportedly “tagged as a John Doe” and his father wasn’t informed of his death until after he filed a missing person report later on the 27th. Why weren’t Trayvon Martin’s parents contacted immediately after the police confirmed his identity? [Washington Post]
Beats me. Any guess would be in the "Wild Ass" area. For example, the cell phone baffles me and everything I have read suggest the police fell down in not locating the girlfriend sooner. Possible explanations for why it was not used to immediately track down his parents - it was password protected, the battery died, it was set to buzzer and no one heard it ring, space aliens ate it - did I mention that I don't know but would like to?
However, as to the clear fact that Trayvon Martin is IDed in the police report yet (per the Sanford FAQ) the family did not make the ID until "late" the following morning, well, it's puzzling. Maybe the name was added to the report later - I have no idea if that might be acceptable procedure.
But from a different perspective, what difference does it make in terms of evaluating the case against Zimmerman? Is the argument that the police might have taken a different approach in the first few hours if they had known that Trayvon Martin belonged in the neighborhood? What different evidence might that have generated?
The timing of the ID in the report is a puzzle, but if I could rub a magic lantern and get answers to five questions, that would not make the list.
So what would make the list? Hmm. I prefer questions that might have a useful answer. As an example of a bad uestion, was the City of Sanford worried about possible liabilty in a wrongful death suit? On one level, of course they were. But no one will ever admit it and there will never be a smoking gun memo ordering the investigators or DA into the tank to save the city's taxpayers, so I wouldn't waste a question on it.
Two obvious ones - what happened with the cell phone that they (apparently) never got ahold of Trayvon Martin's girlfriend? Letting Ben Crump unveil her after the 911 tapes had been made public was not helpful to the investigation, since the defense will allege that her memory may have been supplemented or complemented by the information from those tapes. She is not as credible a witness as she could have been if the police had gotten a statement from her early on (assuming they didn't).
Second, was George Zimmerman tested for drugs and alcohol? That's an easy yes or no and a reporter could expect an answer. It would be nice to get the result, too, but I'll settle for knowing the test was done.
I won't waste a question asking whether the police documented his wounds; I assume that if the DA had a report which read that Zimmerman claimed self-defense but had no wounds, this case (and the leaks) would play out differently. People worried about some conspiracy in which the police, the prosecutor and the defense all know Zimmerman can't prove he had wounds will want to use a question on this. Same thing with the forensics - if Martin was shot in the back, for example, it would take a notable cover-up for us to be where we are.
Third question - where was the body found (the police report seems clear but confirmation would be useful), where was Zimmerman's vehicle recovered, and what was the walking distance separating them? This blogger puts the death just to the right of his letter A; that works for me, and I am now waffling about my guess that final spot was a bit more towards the top of the map (I am missing a link to a third blogger who also makes the spot to the right of the A). That said, I think we differ by a distance of maybe 20-30 yards, which may not mean much.
Fourth question - relating to the possible state of mind of one of the two fight participants and the ability of George Zimmerman to pick out people on drugs or acting oddly - did Trayvon Martin have any drugs or, for example, a half-empty flask of whiskey (some might say half-full) on him?
The NY Timies is unequivocal on this point (my emphasis):
MIAMI — Nearly three weeks after an unarmed teenager was killed in a small city north of Orlando, stirring an outcry, a few indisputable facts remain: the teenager, who was black, was carrying nothing but a bag of Skittles, some money and a can of iced tea when he was shot.
It is indisputable because the family said so; there has been no release of a police inventory from the crime scene. Nor should there be, since the victim and his family have privacy rights, but this is my magic lantern. Eventually the tox screen will provide an answer, I assume; the family could no doubt publicize that answer as soon as it is available, and a decision not to do so might be revealing. Some enterprising reporter willing to deviate from the narrative might want to ask Mr. Crump about that. As if.
Fifth question - can I ask for more questions? Ahh, the question genie hates that one. How about some suggestions?