Only one living person knows exactly what happened on February 26, 2012, the night of Trayvon Martin's death: George Zimmerman. And with no other witnesses who saw everything -- including what led to the shooting -- Zimmerman's own version of events has become the most crucial piece of evidence both for him, and against him, in his own murder trial.
Crucial, controversial -- but consistent
The basics of Zimmerman’s story have remained consistent: Zimmerman said he was on the way to the grocery store the night he spotted 17-year-old Martin in his Sanford, Florida, gated community, the Retreat at Twin Lakes, when he called non-emergency police to report what he called Martin’s suspicious behavior. Zimmerman has consistently said when he lost sight of Martin, he got out of his truck to look for an address to give to the non-emergency dispatcher. And when he was walking back toward his truck, Martin appeared and confronted him, which led to a physical altercation, and ultimately Martin’s death. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder for killing Martin, but Zimmerman claims he was forced to shoot the teenager in self-defense.
Since the incident took place, Zimmerman has recounted the story several times in interviews to police and to the media, mostly in the few days following the shooting. In the various retellings, some key discrepancies crept in.
As we point out the discrepancies below, the important question for the jury is this: Are changes in the story just human error or a display of deception?
Discrepancy No. 1: The bushes
The prosecution called two witnesses from the Sanford Police Department to testify about three key interviews Zimmerman had with police immediately following the shooting. The first occurred on the night of the shooting, the second occurred on the day after, and the third took place just a few days later on February 29, 2012.
The three stories Zimmerman told police during those interviews were for the most part consistent, with some varying details, which both witnesses testified to in court. HLN law enforcement analyst Mike Brooks says the changes in Zimmerman’s story simply reveal different versions of the same narrative – and that the basic facts Zimmerman told police remain consistent.
On February 26 right after he killed Martin, Zimmerman was interviewed by the Sanford Police Department’s Doris Singleton. Zimmerman told Singleton he was walking back to where his car was when Martin jumped out of the bushes and said, "What the f***’s your problem, homie?" Zimmerman told Singleton he got his cell phone out to call 911 and then said to Martin, “Hey man, I don’t have a problem.” Zimmerman said Martin then said, “Well now you have a problem” and then punched him in the nose.
During her testimony in court, Singleton said despite some slight variations, she didn’t notice any significant differences between the story Zimmerman told her and the story he told in other police interviews.
The day after the incident, February 27, Zimmerman led police through the gated community where the shooting took place, with a video camera, to explain to police his version of what happened. In that interview, Zimmerman said he didn’t see exactly where Martin came from, but he came up behind him. “And then he was here, and he punched me in the face… To be honest, I don’t remember exactly. I think I stumbled, I fell down. He pushed me down. Somehow he got on top of me.”
Another interview between Zimmerman and police occurred a few days after the incident, on February 29, 2012. Zimmerman was interviewed by Sanford police Det. Chris Serino, the lead investigator in the case. While on the stand, said he felt Zimmerman exaggerated the number of times he was hit that night, and that there was evidence to suggest that Zimmerman still followed Martin after the non-emergency operator told him not to. Serino also said red flags were raised when Zimmerman said he didn’t know the names of the streets in his neighborhood. There are only three.
However, Serino also said he didn’t feel any “active deception” on Zimmerman’s part when he said he got out of his truck to see what street he was on.
Discrepancy No. 2: A neighbor’s photograph
Although the stories Zimmerman told police are consistent, they don’t quite match up with a photograph taken by a neighbor at the scene that night.
Zimmerman told police that Martin was on top of him, and after he shot Martin, the teen sat up and said, “You got me.” Zimmerman then told police, “I don’t know if I pushed him off me or he fell off me, either way, I got on top of him and pushed his arms apart…I got on his back and spread his arms apart, because when he was repeatedly hitting me in the face – in the head – I thought he had something in his hands. So I just, I moved his hands apart.”
This is where an inconsistency comes into play, not brought about by the stories Zimmerman told police, but by a neighbor who was there that night. A photograph taken by a neighbor shows Martin’s hands under his body, after he was dead, but Zimmerman said he spread Martin's arms apart and then stood up when police arrived.
Prosecutors also raised this point in court through the testimony of Mark Osterman – who called Zimmerman, “the best friend I’ve ever had.”
Osterman said Zimmerman told him what happened the day after the shooting, and Osterman even published a book about the incident. Osterman’s book, “Defending our Friend: The Most Hated Man in America,” is based on what Zimmerman told him about the night he killed Martin. In his book, Osterman wrote that Zimmerman told him he pinned Martin’s arms down, like he told police. When prosecutor Bernie De La Rionda mentioned the photograph and how Martin’s body was found by police, Osterman said he wasn’t aware of that.
The underlying question for the jury is whether there is an explanation for this, or if Zimmerman left something out of his story. Even if police missed something in the investigation immediately following the incident, the key point is whether that changes the basis for Zimmerman's self-defense claim.
Discrepancy No. 3: The gun
Questions have been raised about why Zimmerman was wearing his concealed weapon that night – just to go to the grocery store – and about what exactly led him to shoot Martin.
Zimmerman told police after he shot Martin, someone with a flashlight walked up and he asked the man to help him restrain Martin. Zimmerman said when he saw the police officer arrive, he stood up and holstered his weapon.
Under questioning from prosecutor De La Rionda, that’s not the same story Osterman claims Zimmerman told him.
"After putting his gun back in the holster, he jumped on top of Trayvon Martin and pinned him down," said De La Rionda, quoting the story Zimmerman told Osterman from his book.
"That's correct," said Osterman.
When asked about that part of the story, whether Zimmerman re-holstered his gun immediately after he shot Martin, Doris Singleton said she didn’t think it was significant.
Discrepancy No. 4: Hand that ‘reached’ for the gun
A critical part of Zimmerman’s self-defense claim is that Martin reached for his gun, or Zimmerman felt as though Martin was reaching for his gun, before saying something along the lines of, “You’re going to die tonight.”
In Osterman’s book, Zimmerman is quoted as to which of Martin’s hands reached for the gun: “I desperately got both my hands around the guy’s one wrist and took his hand off my mouth. … He took his hand that was covering my nose and went for my gun.”
Zimmerman is pretty clear in this description, that he got Martin’s hand off his mouth with his hands and then Martin took his other hand off Zimmerman’s nose to reach for the gun. But in an interview Zimmerman did with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, he told a different story.
“He said you’re going to die tonight [expletive] and took one hand off my mouth and I felt it going down my chest toward my belt and my holster. And that’s when I, I didn’t have any more time…”
So are the inconsistencies, or variations, found in the different stories of what happened that night just human error, or are they an act of deception? That's what the prosecution has to prove, in order to prove to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed second-degree murder.