Reporting Trayvon

A CJR guide to some helpful articles

Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot fatally by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on February 26 as he walked, carrying Skittles and ice tea, toward his father’s girlfriend’s home in a gated community in Sanford, FL, a suburb of Orlando. This much we know (also, Skittles sales are up).

In the weeks since, the incident gained media prominence to the point of overtaking 2012 election coverage. Some of that reporting has been of the “he said-she said” variety, and some has been disputed (the Associated Press ran a piece last week pointing out ambiguities in the case). And pundits on all sides of the political spectrum have weighed in on everything from guns to US race relations.

But there has also been some solid shoe-leather reporting, on Florida pavement and elsewhere. The following is a guide to some of the better reports we’ve found:

Updating the facts

Of all the attempts at gathering information about the killing in one place, Mother Jones has done it particularly well, with an epically long, oft-updated explainer page. It’s a compendium of primary sources and reporting and (in a somewhat mixed blessing) also some opinion, organized in a question-and-answer format. It’s a great resource for tracking updates in both information and public reaction as they unfold. The Orlando Sentinel and the online site have also been devoting extensive resources to following the story.

The man behind the Mother Jones effort is Adam Weinstein, 33, Mother Jones’s national security reporter, who is based in Tallahassee and who, interestingly, has had a concealed weapon permit since he turned 21. Weinstein, with assists from DC-based colleagues, has been collecting primary sources and reporting and keeping abreast of other outlets’ coverage.

One useful innovation is a second page devoted solely to archiving primary sources—with the exception of the audio of 911 calls related to the case, which remain toward the top of the first page because of heavy demand.

But “within the first day or three of putting up an explainer,” Weinstein said, “you’re starting a conversation with commenters, readers, tweeters.” How it evolves “really depends on our readership, the attention people are paying to it, and what they want to know about the story.”

The reader-spurred updating leads to useful updates—at this point, 34 of them—but a page that, with the combined content and comments, becomes unwieldy. MoJo might consider making the updates available by topic as well as chronological order, since the additions aren’t always time-sensitive but, rather, reported responses to reader curiosity.

Weinstein said he’ll continue updating the explainer in the coming weeks, but that Mother Jones’s coverage of the Trayvon case will soon shift focus beyond the explainer monolith to long-form stories. “What we found is there’s a tipping point where it gets to be so large that what we do is we use the explainer as a forum,” Weinstein said. “Stories begin to need their own space.”

The police

A widespread perception exists at this point that, whatever happened between Martin and Zimmerman, the investigation of the Sanford Police Department was amateurish at best. The vote of no-confidence in Police Chief Bill Lee by the City Council certainly fostered that impression, as did the subsequent temporary removal of Lee from his post, and the recusal of state attorney Norman Wolfinger.

So we were surprised when, in a review of the coverage, we had a hard time turning up a comprehensive journalistic account of what the police actions actually were—and how they measured up to optimal (or even standard) police practices in the investigation of a suspicious death. Mother Jones’s Weinstein said last Friday that he, too, had not “yet found [a] big unified piece focusing on the Sanford police’s conduct.” (Update: but see here.)

The clearest crack at that story we did find is a good March 21 article by Frances Robles of The Miami Herald. Robles catalogues the leading criticisms of the department, tracks down police practices experts to weigh in, and gets on-the-record responses—some more persuasive than others—from the Sanford PD.

(Several of Robles’s items mention witness complaints about the investigation. A March 13 article by ABC News’s Matt Gutman offers a more incendiary formulation, saying that an officer “corrected” one eyewitness’s account to make it more sympathetic to Zimmerman.)

That Herald article appeared nearly two weeks ago, though, and important new claims have since come to light. Gutman reported on March 27 that the local department’s lead investigator, Chris Serino, wanted to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter on the night of the killing. That same day, CBS’s Mark Strassman, in a useful article that sketched a brief history of the investigation, reported that Serino pursued the charge for two weeks. And a day later,’s Joy-Ann Reid reported that Wolfinger took the unusual step of consulting with local police on the night of the killing, as the decision to release Zimmerman was being made.

The time is ripe for a reporter to deliver a current, comprehensive account of the investigation that knits these strands together; makes clear what’s known, what’s alleged, and what’s disputed about investigator’s actions; spells out what an ideal investigation would have looked like, and even advances the ball by answering some outstanding questions. For example: are there any police photos of Zimmerman that might show his injuries—or lack of injuries—more clearly than the grainy surveillance video we’ve all been staring at?

Stand Your Ground

One of the better pieces on the general nature and effect of Stand Your Ground laws—of which Florida’s is said to be one of the most broadly drawn—ran Saturday in The Wall Street Journal. Joe Palazzolo and Rob Barry reported that:

At a time when the overall U.S. homicide rate is declining, more civilians are killing each other and claiming self-defense—a trend that is most pronounced in states with new “stand your ground” laws.

So-called justifiable homicides nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, when 326 were reported, the story says. But the data have not been rigorously studied, Palazzolo and Barry reported, and criminal scientists don’t yet know whether the rise in ‘justifiable’ homicides “reflects killings that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, or if it reflects the fact that more killings might naturally fall into the “justifiable” category.

The story includes interesting stats on race and fatal killings, too. In most killings the killer and the victim are of the same race. In most killings in which the two are of different races, the victim is more often white. But in so-called justifiable homicides, the victim is more often black.

Sanford, Florida

The local context is helpful in understanding what happened in this case. Unsurprisingly, the Florida press has done best at supplying this context, though Mother Jones and The Daily Beast have also run stories that are worth your time.

One of the oldest incorporated cities in Florida, Sanford is 20 miles northeast of Orlando. According to the 2010 census, the city is home to 54,000 people—57 percent white, 30.5 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.

Mother Jones’s Weinstein has the record on Sanford’s sad, storied, and far-too-recent history of racial tensions. Though many American cities share a strained racial past, Weinstein makes a compelling case that Sanford’s is particularly interesting, and that it lingers. This is a community whose founder had notions to send American blacks to the Congo; which incorporated, in ungenerous fashion, a neighboring black community in 1911; that chased off Jackie Robinson in 1947; and whose police force, in recent years, has come under attack for racial profiling and mishandling the investigations of several crimes involving black victims. This AP story has more on current dynamics between the police and blacks in the community.

Reuters has a fascinating story on how Sanford’s part-time mayor, Jeff Triplett, has found himself at the center of a national firestorm and how some of his decisions—particularly to release the 911 calls from the case—have been controversial with the city staff.

Florida papers have also reported that Sanford has spent $5,000 on crisis communications in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case.

The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the Sanford gated community in which Trayvon Martin’s father’s fiance lived, and where Martin was shot, was developed in 2004 and consists of 263 two-story townhouse units, a clubhouse, and a community pool. Much like the demographics of Sanford itself, the Retreat at Twin Lakes is relatively diverse—50 percent white, 20 percent Hispanic, and 20 percent black.

Like many communities in Florida, Twin Lakes had been hit hard by the foreclosure crisis. In a well-reported, and well-worth-your-time article, Tampa Bay Times reporter Lane DeGregory calls Retreat at Twin Lakes “a classic Florida story”:

Developers saw potential in the sandy acres east of Orlando and determined to turn them into an oasis. They planned a gated subdivision just 10 minutes from downtown — a cloistered community near the interstate, close to good schools, outlet malls and the magic of Disney World.

The idea, as always, was that people could live peacefully in a paradise where nobody could park a car on the street or paint the house an odd color.

Per DeGregory’s reporting, the cost of a 1,400 square-foot Twin Lakes townhome has fallen from $250,000 to below $100,000; 40 homes are empty in the community and half are inhabited by renters (George Zimmerman and Brandy Green, Martin’s father’s fiancé, among them). Indeed, Retreat at Twin Lakes homes are easy to find in foreclosure and real estate listings.

A number of Retreat at Twin Lakes residents interviewed in Trayvon Martin coverage have called their community ‘safe’ and ‘family-oriented.’ According to DeGregory, Trayvon Martin was known by many of the young people at Retreat at Twin Lakes because he played football with them when he visited.

But similar to the ‘eyes on the street’ effect Jane Jacobs outlined in The Death and Life of American Cities, the effects of the foreclosure crisis—empty houses and high turnover in community—seems to have unsettled some Retreat at Twin Lakes residents and fostered a culture of petty theft and suspicion. During the summer of 2011, there was a string of burglaries in which laptops, PlayStations, bikes, a car, and jewlery were stolen from homes at Retreat at Twin Lakes. Mother Jones has posted some of the related incident reports, and they have been reported in coverage by the Tampa Bay Times, The Miami Herald, and the Daily Beast, which highlighted the following:

Last July a rental car was stolen from one townhome along with the car keys, which were inside on a dining room table. The resident awoke in the morning to discover her sliding glass door open. The car was eventually found abandoned. In August a PlayStation and videogames were stolen from another townhome. In September someone vandalized a townhome under construction. In December someone broke into a foreclosed townhome, stopped up a toilet and started the water running….

Three weeks before Martin’s death another Twin Lakes resident arrived home to discover a kitchen window open and a laptop and gold necklaces missing.

These incidents alarmed residents and strained relations between them. Robles’s article includes this telling line:

Problems in the 6-year-old community started during the recession, when foreclosures forced owners to rent out to “low-lifes and gangsters,” said Frank Taaffe, a former neighborhood block captain.

Much of the suspicion was directed at teenagers in the community, as DeGregory reports. Zimmerman, meanwhile, had a long record of calling 911—reporting pot holes, open garage doors, and anything suspicious—but DeGregory reports these summer incidents coincide with the period in which Zimmerman’s calls became more notably more concerned with ‘suspicious’ black males.

Zimmerman was not the only Retreat at Twin Lakes resident concerned about growing crime in the gated community. Per DeGregory: “In September, the Sanford police helped the Retreat start a neighborhood watch program. ‘Some residents called me wanting to do a startup,’ said Dorival, a civilian police employee. About 30 people came to the clubhouse for that first session, she said. ‘Everyone was enthusiastic.’ Zimmerman volunteered to be captain.”

Some stories have reported with a suggestion of illegitimacy that the Twin Lakes neighborhood watch group was not of the 25,000 registered with the National Sheriff’s Association. But while that is true, it is very clear the chapter had support and basic instruction provided by the Sanford Police Department.

Dorival has described to a number of outlets how she briefed neighborhood watch members at Retreat at Twin Lakes that evening. Per The New York Times:

She then gave a PowerPoint presentation and distributed a handbook. As she always does, she emphasized what a neighborhood watch is — and what it is not.

In every presentation, “I go through what the rules and responsibilities are,” she said Thursday. The volunteers’ role, she said, is “being the eyes and ears” for the police, “not the vigilante.” Members of a neighborhood watch “are not supposed to confront anyone,” she said. “We get paid to get into harm’s way. You don’t do that. You just call them from the safety of your home or your vehicle.”

Using a gun in the neighborhood watch role would be out of the question, she said in an interview.

Slate has a good explainer on Neighborhood Watch and their effectiveness here, and the Orlando Sentinel has a useful story on the relationship between the police and neighborhood watch groups.

Some outlets have described Zimmerman as a “self-appointed” neighborhood watch captain, but other accounts indicate that Zimmerman volunteered for the job, and that neighbors approved of him in the position. Accounts also indicate that while Zimmerman was violating neighborhood watch guidance, until the shooting of Trayvon Martin, some residents thought Zimmerman was doing a good job. Crime continued in the subdivision, and Zimmerman was credited with apprehending one suspect and thwarting crimes. “Interviews with neighbors reveal a pleasant young man passionate about neighborhood security who took it upon himself to do nightly patrols while he walked his dog,” writes Robles.

The story goes on to offer testimonies from several neighbors who credited Zimmerman for improved security at Twin Lakes, but also quotes a resident who, fitting the description of the ‘suspicious’ characters Zimmerman targeted, was clearly made nervous and changed his behaviors to avoid the zealous watch captain. She interviews 25-year old Ibrahim Rashada:

“I fit the stereotype he emailed around,” he said. “Listen, you even hear me say it: ‘A black guy did this. A black guy did that.’ So I thought, ‘Let me sit in the house. I don’t want anyone chasing me.’ ”

For walks, he goes downtown.

That residents didn’t feel safe to move freely within their own gated community because of an overzealous neighborhood watch captain is a tragic irony, and in a smart blog post at, Robert Steuteville argues that while gates are designed to provide a measure of security, they in fact worked in reverse for Trayvon Martin.

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