I hadn’t planned on getting caught up in the George Zimmerman murder trial, but after chancing upon the televised opening arguments and watching awhile out of car-wreck curiosity, I soon heard something calling from deep in my memory vault.
It was a faint signal at first, but it gradually got stronger, until a scrap of a television show I had seen 45 or 50 years ago emerged intact.
The ancient black-and-white film clip in my mind’s eye was of a violent encounter between a lion and a zebra, somewhere in Africa, and I quickly recognized that I had conjured it up to help make sense – when so many other things hadn’t – of what was going on at the Zimmerman trial.
And, more than that, I recognized it as a potentially powerful play – call it the “Wild Kingdom card” – that the prosecution could make to dismantle George Zimmerman’s argument for why he was justified in killing Trayvon Martin in February 2012.
For those who aren’t familiar with the events, Zimmerman is accused of murder after shooting Martin on a rainy night in Zimmerman’s housing complex in Sanford, Fla. Martin, a skinny, black, high-school junior, was there from Miami to visit his father, who lived in the complex with his fiancée. Zimmerman, then 28, of white and Latino heritage, was in his truck patrolling the complex as a volunteer crime watcher, when he spotted Martin, who was returning on foot from a local convenience store.
Martin carried an Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles. Zimmerman carried a loaded semiautomatic pistol with seven bullets in the magazine and another at the ready in the firing chamber. Zimmerman phoned police and, in a profanity laced report, made it clear he figured Martin for a would-be criminal, possibly high on drugs, who was looking for trouble. Against the instructions of the police dispatcher, Zimmerman began following Martin on foot.
What happened next isn’t clear, other than this: in a struggle, Zimmerman got a bloody nose and two shallow scratches on his head. Martin, with Zimmerman’s pistol pressed to the center of his chest, got shot through the heart. Zimmerman claims Martin assaulted him, and, fearing for his life, he fired. At trial, his defense lawyers’ case has relied heavily on highlighting Zimmerman’s injuries and asserting that, because he got punched in the nose and claims he had his head banged against the sidewalk, he was justified in using his gun. The claim, in other words, is self-defense.
Now, the Wild Kingdom card. As I say, in the film clip I recalled, there was a lion – a young male, it turned out, who hadn’t yet honed his hunting skills, but who was apparently hungry and therefore persistent. There also was a zebra – a bit elderly, as I remember, and even a little lame, but healthy enough that he put up a vigorous fight when the lion, after stealing through tall grass, attacked.
It was a classic hunter-prey situation, except that as the lion rushed from behind, the old zebra kicked the lion hard in the head and knocked him sideways. The lion attacked again and rolled the zebra, who popped up and bit the lion on the foreleg. The lion staggered but recovered, and the fight went on for several horrific minutes, with the zebra giving as good as he got before finally succumbing to the lion’s ruinous claws and teeth.
In the aftermath, it was clear that the lion himself was bloodied, bruised and even limping – but, through it all, the hunter-prey dynamic never changed. As hard as the zebra resisted, as much damage as he inflicted on the lion, the roles were never reversed. The zebra was never the hunter, the lion never the prey.
On that February night in 2012, George Zimmerman, who was armed not only with a lethal pistol, but with months-worth of martialarts training, stalked Trayvon Martin, first from a truck and then on foot. Yes, he might have gotten punched in the nose for his troubles. And yes, he picked up a couple of scrapes on his head. But the matter of who was the hunter and who the prey was never in doubt, as the outcome tragically proved.
Trayvon Martin is dead, and George Zimmerman’s lawyers want the jury to set him free because, while he was out hunting that night, his prey fought back. Maybe prosecution lawyers would do well to research some nature documentaries and show a clip or two to the jury during closing arguments.