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New Zimmerman Photo

April 23rd, 2012

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.

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  1. Troy
    April 23rd, 2012 at 13:47 | #1

    I disagree strongly most of what you wrote (until the last part). We’re not the jury so it doesn’t harm us to just assume this new leak is legit and throwing it in the Bayesian Inference hopper.

    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

    Scalp wounds — more of a cut in this case — tend to bleed a lot. So if the cut is horizontal on the scalp, you’d quite likely get that pattern.

    I think if this photo comes from the PD I can see why the prosecutor declined to take up the case. No jury in FL is going to convict a well-spoken guy for shooting a black kid with this amount of blood.

    If legit, this, along with SYG, is Zimmerman’s “get of jail free card”.

    Upon further reflection, last week Jon was correct in pointing out that we really don’t know how much investigation has been done with this case.

    We can assume things, but assumptions are dangerous.

    I personally don’t think this amount of bodily harm constitutes a solid defense for shooting someone in the chest, but what I think and what the law actually is are usually two different things.

    The important thing for me is that the state actually try this case, put the evidence before a jury.

  2. Tim Kane
    April 24th, 2012 at 00:56 | #2

    Under most American interpretations of common law, one is privileged to use self defense if one feels reasonably (objective standard, not subjective) threatened by assault (fear of impending battery).

    Self Defense must be proportional to the threat. You can’t use a deadly weapon as self defense if someone is threatening you with his fist. You can only use deadly force when you reasonably feel your life is threatened.

    In the majority of jurisdiction, there is a duty to retreat before recourse to use of deadly force. A large minority of jurisdictions do not have a duty to retreat before use of deadly force, however, the party that initiates a scuffle (starts a fight or altercation) DOES have a duty to retreat before resorting to use of deadly force.

    These are common law principles that are typically taught in law school or a bar preparation class. Florida’s laws, and its stand your ground law, might be different from this, though I don’t know how.

    When one looks at the above, the story leaked out by pro-Zimmerman agencies, implie that he was in retreat when Martin must have attacked him from the rear, triggger a scuffle – In otherwords, the ‘testimony’ manufactured for the court of public opinion was almost designed to meet the elements listed above for use of deadly force in self defense.

    That alone makes the case look suspect in my view.

    Now that the case is in a court of law, I really don’t care about it anymore – if it’s tried competently, a reasonable outcome will ensue – if he really was acting in self defense it will be proved. My problem has always been, a man who killed another man with a lethal weapon had not been subject to a trial to determine his innocence or guilt – such a man should not be left free to roam the streets based solely on his own word that it was self defense.

    My own sense is Zimmerman is probably guilty of some crime. The killing doesn’t take place if he is acting as he ought to act and in a place he ought to be. He had no business being anywhere near Martin while armed, and if he was not nothing would have happened and Martin would still be alive. I also suspect the cries for help were the boy’s not the killers as the cries stop after the gun is fired — but we’ll never know this for sure.

    Put another way, I would not feel comfortable if Zimmerman lived in my neighborhood – the man owns lethal weapons and is not afraid to use them, and may even feel entitled to use them against his fellow humans as a result of a mild paranoia. Like O.J. Zimmerman could be found innocent in a criminal trial and guilty in a wrongful death trial where the standard for judgment is different.

    Again, now that the wheels of justice are turning, I don’t want to hear about this case until the trial is over. The issue had always been that an armed man killed an unarmed man who was peacefully going about his business, and the police basically let the killer walk away without charging him with committing a crime. There was probable cause that a crime occurred. That situation has been fixed so the big issue is over, in my mind. Let justice now do its job.

  3. Troy
    April 24th, 2012 at 04:31 | #3

    Like O.J. Zimmerman could be found innocent in a criminal trial and guilty in a wrongful death trial where the standard for judgment is different.

    But AFAIK Florida’s SYG law kinda closes that avenue, too, since gun-owners got tired of also getting sued in civil court for blowing away people.

    To be fair, I think since this is such a shitty society (and it’s only getting worse) people do have a right to lethal defenses, especially in their own homes. There’s a lot less opportunity for he-said / she-said situations when the shooter exercises is 2nd/9th rights in his own home.

    But allowing people to walk around with concealed carry like this case does, however, create more chances for this type of incident to occur without any opportunity for the justice system to operate.

    I didn’t disbelieve the testimony that Zimmerman got roughed up by Martin, not once I learned that the kid wasn’t actually the 10 year old in the initial photos (nor was Zimmerman the hulking dude of those initial photos, either).

    But as of now my “gut” — the guess that fits the most facts that have come out — says Zimmerman tried to detain Martin for the cops and an altercation escalated from that.

    In this day and age kids can’t just assume creeps like Zimmerman are who they say they are, and this is partially why neighborhood watch is supposed to be watch and not police.

  4. April 25th, 2012 at 21:04 | #4

    Tis but a scratch. That’s a grievous wound, that little bit of blood? Scalp’s too clean. Ridiculous.

  5. Troy
    April 26th, 2012 at 04:41 | #5

    Theresa :
    Tis but a scratch. That’s a grievous wound, that little bit of blood? Scalp’s too clean. Ridiculous.

    ^ yeah, if Trayvon didn’t put him in the hospital, not much of a case for self-defense in my mind.

    But I am not the typical Florida jury. The prosecution has to find 12 people who are going to convict on beyond a reasonable doubt. Not gunna happen.

  6. Jon
    April 27th, 2012 at 05:18 | #6

    Troy, saying someone cannot use self defense until after they have sustained enough damage to put them in the hospital is the precisely the same thing as saying they cannot use self defense at all.

    The entire point is to avoid that damage. That’s why it’s called ‘defense’ and not ‘revenge’.

  7. Jon
    April 27th, 2012 at 05:22 | #7

    Oh, and also Troy, much respect for challenging what you believed. Hard thing to do.

  8. Troy
    April 27th, 2012 at 07:57 | #8

    Thing is, I’m very confident in asserting that this kid was not in fact a murderer, and was not going to kill Zimmerman 70 yards from his home that night.

    Zimmerman created this situation, and even if it went down largely as he has asserted it still stinks or poor decision-making on his part.

    We can never know if shooting the kid was just one more of his poor decisions that night.

    Killing someone in a justifiable homicide generally requires “feels that their own life, the lives of their family, or those around them are in legitimate and imminent danger.”

    Florida lowered that standard to:

    “He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm”

    but it’s still debatable about whether SYG even applies in this case (the authors of the bill have opined it does not), and whether the injuries suffered by Zimmerman were actually caused by Martin and whether they rise to the threat of further “great bodily harm”.

    This is something for the court to work through now at least.

  9. Jon
    April 27th, 2012 at 08:54 | #9

    Actually, I believe the standard of ‘imminent danger of grievous bodily harm or death’ predates the SYG laws. At least, that has been the standard as far back as I can recall.

    I agree that there is no reason at all to believe that Martin INTENDED to kill Zimmerman. I also agree that Zimmerman used poor judgement in his handling of the situation.

    But if it turns out he DID slam his head into the pavement, that is and has been for a long time within the definition of ‘deadly force’.

    I do feel the need to point out that Zimmerman has never (AFAIK) claimed to have shot Martin because of that, however. His claim is that he moved (rolled? Slid?) off the pavement to protect his head and his gun became exposed. He says Martin then tried to take the gun from him.

    If that is true, someone who has just beat your head against the ground trying to take your gun would certainly meet the standard of ‘reasonable fear of imminent death’.

    And once you draw a gun at bad breath range, it’s going to get used.

    This is a case where the presence of the gun lead to death. That is a head thing for gun rights advocates to accept, but it is what it is.

    But it is also true that the notion that the kid died ‘innocently walking home’ is getting a bit hard to support. By all I can find, he died during the commission of felony assault.

  10. Troy
    April 27th, 2012 at 12:16 | #10

    There’s a legal standard of whatever the defendant says happened, happened?

    I wasn’t aware of that.

    >By all I can find, he died during the commission of felony assault.

    This is that bias thing again.

  11. Jon
    April 27th, 2012 at 14:05 | #11

    Not bias, just really hard to come up with another explanation for the wounds to the back of his head. Seriously. A broken nose or split lip can easily be caused by legitimate self defense. Multiple injuries to the back of the head?

    I cannot think of a viable alternative explanation.

    Can you? Seriously, we have a police report, video, and now pictures consistent with multiple blunt impacts to the back of the head, severe enough to cause large splits in the scalp. What are the options?

    And no, the standard is not ‘whatever the defendant says’. It is, however, innocent until proven guilty.

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