Welcome to Phase 2 of the Trayvon Martin Debacle

Well something like this was inevitable, I suppose, and it isn’t hard to anticipate the reaction from the usual suspects:

Trayvon Martin may have attacked a Neighborhood Watch captain before the man shot dead the unarmed teen in a gated community in Florida, an anonymous witness who spoke to police claimed yesterday.

The witness, known only as John, told Sanford police that he saw Martin on top of George Zimmerman shortly before the fatal shot that has led to a national outcry, including a huge ‘hoodie’ march in Philadelphia last night.

He recounted the details to Fox 35 News in Florida.

The witness told FOX 35 in Orlando that he saw evidence of a fight between Martin and Zimmerman, which could lend credence to the gunman’s claim that he was acting in self-defence.

‘The guy on the bottom who had a red sweater on was yelling to me: “Help, help… and I told him to stop and I was calling 911,’ he said.

Zimmerman was wearing a red sweater; Martin was in a grey hoodie.

He added: ‘When I got upstairs and looked down, the guy who was on top beating up the other guy, was the one laying in the grass, and I believe he was dead at that point.’

This account is drastically different from the portrait painted of Martin by his friends and acquaintances.

Really? It does?

“Friends of the slain 17-year-old,” the article continues, “say they cannot imagine him getting involved in a fight, and insist that he was not violent.”

But there are endless shades to the concept of “getting involved in a fight,” which range from picking out someone and beating them up for no reason to fighting back when cornered or provoked.

The fact that this anonymous witness thinks Martin was beating up Zimmerman is worthless once you factor in the unreliability of eyewitness testimony, especially in moments of chaos and physiological arousal. The human brain simply isn’t well-built to look out at a scene like the one John witnessed and quickly determine who is beating up who or the nature of the altercation.

So the evidence provided by John points to only one certain fact (and this is buttressed by the cops, who did say that Zimmerman had a broken nose when they got to him): there was a tussle between Zimmerman and Martin. On its own that tells us very little.

The 911 call indicates that Zimmerman decided well before the shooting that he thought Martin was suspicious, and had begun to follow him (against the advice of the 911 dispatcher). So we have a sequence like this:

1) Zimmerman calls 911 to report the “suspicious” Martin.
2) Zimmerman begins to pursue Martin.
3) ???
4) Zimmerman and Martin get in a fight.
5) Zimmerman shoots Martin.

Everything is speculation at this point, of course. But given what we know about Zimmerman’s penchant for heightened vigilance (46 emergency calls in the last six years) and the consensus view that Martin was a completely sweet, nonconfrontational kid (yes, he was suspended from school, but for tardiness), I just don’t see how this changes anything. As of now, there’s no reason to think Martin did anything that a reasonable person would consider likely to provoke getting shot.

(Necessary postscript: Even assuming that there was a tussle may strike some as premature, of course, but between the bloody nose and John stating he saw Zimmerman and Martin fightingfighting—it’s easy to misinterpret the reason for a fight, but harder to completely conjure from thin air the memory that a fight occurred at all—this seems plausible, at least for now.)

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.