SANFORD, Fla. — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton are in the car with their attorney, Ben Crump, after a long day in the Seminole County Criminal Court in Sanford, Florida, where they have been daily observers since jury selection began June 10th, in the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot their 17-year-old son Trayvon Martin to death in February 2012. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder.
“You can’t describe the feeling when you learn that your loved one has been lost. That’s like …” Martin says before trailing off. As the case plays out in court, both parents say they’re fighting a daily battle to preserve the memory of the Trayvon they knew, and to not let him become a media caricature.
“I think one of things that everybody seems to overlook is the fact that, OK, that was our child,” Martin said Wednesday, in a telephone interview with theGrio. “So whatever your opinion is of him, that’s your opinion. At the end of the day that was our child, and we knew our child and we loved him. And no matter what you try to say about him, [or] how you try to spin his image, or you try to assassinate his character, we know his character, we know his image, and it’s up to us to not let you smear him.”
A battle of images
Zimmerman says he shot Martin, who was unarmed, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Zimmerman, who was a neighborhood watch volunteer, called the non-emergency police line to report seeing someone suspicious as he drove through the gated community in Sanford where he lived.
The shooting has become a matter of political polarization, particularly after President Obama told a news conference last year that if he had a son, “he would look like Trayvon.” It has pierced the cultural landscape: pro athletes, celebrities and members of congress have donned hoodies, introduced resolutions, and reached out to the family, making Martin’s death a symbol of what some see as the profiling of young, black men, and disparate treatment by police. Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, has repeatedly said that “race should not be a factor in the George Zimmerman case and should never have been made one.”
O’Mara has also pushed back against the photographic depiction of Martin in the press — a timeline of photos provided by the family: a young Trayvon Martin skiing, or in his football uniform, or receiving a kiss on the cheek from his dad, or horseback riding at Fulton’s birthday party in a picture taken just a week before his death. And there’s the ubiquitous black and white closeup “hoodie” picture that has shown up on T-shirts and murals, and protest signs, and which peers out from “Justice for Trayvon” signs hung in the windows of some of the black barbershops, bars and stores in Sanford. They are snapshots from a mother’s memory of her son. The defense team has said the images paint a misleading picture of the person George Zimmerman encountered on that rainy night last February 26th.
The defense has its own montage: grainy video stills from the security camera at the 7-11 where Martin bought the Skittles candy and Arizona iced tea that were found with his gray hoodie. Texts and photos from Martin’s cell phone, posted to the defense website, that show the teen blowing smoke out of his mouth, or wearing a removable gold “grill.” Circuit Judge Debra Nelson ruled the texts and images could not be used in the defense’s opening statements when the trial begins.
O’Mara later apologized on the Zimmerman legal defense website for mischaracterizing a video from the phone, which he had said during a court hearing showed Martin taping two friends beating up a homeless man. The video showed two men fighting over a bike. O’Mara said the purpose of the video was not to smear the dead teen, but rather to authenticate his voice. (Both parents insist the voice heard on the fight tape is not Martin’s.) But O’Mara makes no apologies about doing what he feels is necessary to defend his client, saying that if prosecutors “open the door” while putting on their case, Florida law could allow him to explore Trayvon Martin’s background.
Worse than what has emerged through the legal process, the family’s lawyers say, have been the often anonymous attacks on websites, describing Trayvon Martin as a thug and a drug dealer, or circulating a photo that was supposed to be of Martin, but was actually the 28-year-old, heavily-tattooed rapper The Game. In March, Zimmerman’s older brother Robert, tweeted a comparison between Martin and a Georgia teen, De’Marquise Elkins, who is accused of shooting a toddler to death after asking the child’s mother for money. He later apologized, and blamed the outburst on the “liberal media.” A Florida man last May claimed to have sold out of targets depicting a hooded figure holding iced tea and Skittles. And a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, Todd Kincannon, posted a series of offensive tweets on Super Bowl Sunday, including one saying Trayvon Martin deserved to be “put down like a rabid dog.”
On Tuesday, Harry Houck, a former New York police detective and FoxNews.com commentator said during an online discussion of the case that “Trayvon Martin would be alive today if he didn’t have a street attitude…”
“You sit back and you evaluate how much energy you spend in trying to correct [those] things,” Tracy Martin said. “So right now I feel that as a father I’m trying to clean up a lot of the negativity that’s being publicized about Tray, and the reason I feel I have to do that is because I know that that wasn’t Trayvon’s image, and that’s not what he was about. And as a father, the things that you instill in your child … you just can’t let that be tarnished by whatever the opposition wants to… kind of spray him with.”
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