The media is atwitter again, this time over a newly released photo reportedly showing blood and a wound on the back of George Zimmerman’s head just minutes after he shot Trayvon Martin.
Many of the stories, especially from the conservative media, call the photo a “game changer” and suggest that it could help Zimmerman’s case. A few more responsible reports cautiously remind people that the photos might not mean what people think, and no reports I have seen take any note that the photos may not even be genuine.
An observer who does not think very long or deeply may jump to the conclusion: hey, Zimmerman was telling the truth, so these photos exonerate him. He’s innocent.
However, there are several problems, the last one being the clincher.
Problem #1: where did the photo come from? ABC News, which released it, says that the source wishes to remain anonymous and was very reluctant to release it. That a source may wish to remain anonymous is understandable for that person in a case like this. However, if this photo is to be treated as evidence, the identity of the source is crucial.
ABC claims that the image came from a witness who heard the incident but did not see it, and arrived at the scene just after the shots were fired. Reportedly, there are other photos ABC did not acquire or release. Lacking a specific identification of the source, however, verification of the photo is problematic at best.
Amusingly, conservative sites which, just a few days ago, were treating ABC as completely unreliable, are now taking their claims as rock-solid evidence.
Problem #2: how do we know the photo is genuine? ABC News said that they checked the “embedded” data, meaning the EXIF data. EXIF data is information attached to a digital image file which specifies most if not all of the information available about the image and the device which produced it. EXIF data includes a time stamp, GPS coordinates, identification of the camera and its settings for the photos, and technical information about the image. It is assumed that if the EXIF data shows that the photo was taken at the scene of the killing at the time one would expect, then that would assure us of the image’s veracity.
The problem is that, like any digital information, EXIF data can be altered and falsified. It is not a smoking gun, so to speak. Instead, a critical question is, when, if ever, did police take possession of the image? If they took the cell phone (reportedly an iPhone) at the scene on that night and checked it into evidence, then the data would be more trustworthy. If the police did not take possession of the device immediately, then grave questions arise over the data’s authenticity.
In this case, it seems apparent, though not specified, that the police did not take possession of the device. For one thing, the source, presumably a private individual, had possession of the images; if police had taken the device at the scene, the owner may have received it back, but almost certainly would not have received the images back with it. Second, when the prosecution filed its case, they cited that “Zimmerman’s wounds are not apparent,” which indicates they did not have this photo even as recently as a week or two ago. Other reports have the prosecution saying they have “seen the photo,” but did not specify if it was before or after the charges were filed; if before, then their affidavit claiming no visible wounds would be very problematic to their case.
That means that the owner of the image did not submit the image to the police, or that the police did not accept or log the information. Worse, it means that the chain of evidence is broken, and that the image was “in the wild” for more than a month–more than long enough for the image to be very cleverly faked. For example, Zimmerman could have posed somewhere with the exact same jacket and had the blood applied, then the EXIF data altered. It is not likely, but it is possible. If the data was not handed over quickly, this could raise serious doubts.
Problem #3: pieces that don’t fit. Certainly Zimmerman must have known the photos existed. Over all that time that people were claiming no images existed, why not mention that someone at the scene snapped the photos? Zimmerman probably consented to the photo being taken, and may even have requested it, which might mean he knew or came to know the photographer. Almost certainly he knew they had been taken. Why not get the images and release them himself?
For that matter, although the photographer’s desire for anonymity is understandable, why on earth would s/he be reluctant to release the photos? Any responsible person would have at least tried to hand them over to police. A very responsible person would have done so at the scene, a slightly less responsible one later, probably after they had downloaded copies for themselves. But to keep them until this late date? For what reason?
The witness also reportedly claimed to have seen gunpowder burns on Trayvon Martin’s hoodie. This seems oddly specific–an unusual thing to notice and comment on. Most laymen would not necessarily recognize such a thing, and may not even be qualified to make that conclusion. Was the person trying to say more about this and ABC truncated the statement? Not to mention, would not have blood around the wound occluded any such marks to a casual observer, or even if photographic evidence existed? Is Trayvon’s hoodie still in evidence? Examination would, of course, be revealing as to distance and so forth.
Next comes the photo itself. It would appear to show a wound on the right side of the head, apparently the source of the lower and rightmost of the two evident blood streams.
However, there is another blood stream to the left of that with no apparent source. Even stranger, the blood in this area appears cut off in what seems to be a void, as if something had been covering Zimmerman’s head. The line appears too sharp for it to have been cleaned off, and there is no visible wound to explain where the blood came from. This would suggest that the blood came from an outside source, most likely Trayvon. This would seem to confirm that Martin was on top of Zimmerman when the shooting occurred. However, this puts into question the source of the other blood stream as well.
Additionally, the void is strangely located, near the crown of the head; a hat would not explain this, unless it was moved forward so as almost to cover the face. What created the void, if that’s what it is?
Then there is the question of how the blood is arranged, and if it is consistent with having one’s head slammed into the concrete several times. A blood expert would certainly have to examine the patterns and all other evidence to suggest how this whole pattern came to be.
Finally, ABC did not release the actual image file; no one aside from them and the authorities are able to examine the image clearly. What is apparent from ABC screen grabs is not enough to thoroughly check for telltale signs of manipulation or other possible distortions.
Problem #4: and this is the clincher–the image is not relevant to Zimmerman’s innocence or guilt. This is the major misconception going around, mainly due to the fact that evidence of Zimmerman’s wounds has been a central point of argument concerning the case. People make the mistaken assumption that evidence of a struggle is the key to the whole case, and if this photo is genuine, that exonerates Zimmerman.
What people fail to realize is that the evidence of wounds was a question, not a key point, concerning Zimmerman’s story. He claimed to have been beaten half to death, yet did not show the signs of it. It was only an inconsistency, however–it was never the crux of the case, never the piece of evidence upon which his innocence or guilt hinged.
If the image is authentic and we find that Trayvon did indeed injure Zimmerman, it only dismisses the supposition that Zimmerman lied about that detail only.
The key elements in the case remain: (1) who instigated the altercation, being relevant to the “stand your ground” defense; and (2) did Zimmerman have justification to use deadly force? Head wounds or not, a bloody scuffle is not justification for shooting someone to death.
The photo answers neither of these questions. If authentic, it may help Zimmerman in his case before the general public and the media, but not in a court of law.