Joe Oliver appeared on MSNBC's The Last Word on Tuesday night to defend his friend, George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch member who admitted to killing Trayvon Martin. And things got very intense.
"I'm stepping forward for George because this was not a racial incident," Oliver said. "I'm stepping forward for George because of how it has it ignited all the racial tensions that we've had here for years. I understand everything that everyone is out there marching about because I've experienced it myself. And I wouldn't put myself on the line like this if I didn't know in my heart that George Zimmerman was in a life-or-death struggle."
Zimmerman has not been charged or arrested in Martin's killing, which has become the focus of intense national attention. Martin, 17, was returning to the home of his father's girlfriend on Feb. 26 when Zimmerman reported him to the police because Zimmerman thought the teenager looked "suspicious." A dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Martin, but not long after, Martin and Zimmerman engaged in a scuffle, and Zimmerman shot Martin.
But after some tense questioning from the New York Times's Charles Blow and the Washington Post's Jonathan Capeheart, Oliver seemed to back away from the characterization that he was Zimmerman's close friend.
"He couldn't stop crying. He's a caring human being," Oliver, 53, told Reuters in a telephone interview last weekend. "I mean, he took a man's life and he has no idea what to do about it. He's extremely remorseful about it," Oliver said. He was relating stories told to him by Zimmerman's mother-in-law, who is a close friend of Oliver's wife.
Oliver had previously appeared on MSNBC to frame the story, as he saw it, of a disputed segment of the 911 calls from the night of the shooting. On the call, while Zimmerman is talking to a police dispatcher, he says that "these assholes always get away" before referring to him. While media reports have suggested that Zimmerman used a racial epithet on the call, referring to Martin a "fucking coon," Oliver said that Zimmerman actually said "goon."
Blow was irate at the suggestion that Oliver, who had been slippery in the segment about the nature of his relationship with Zimmerman, could be so sure about the events of that night.
"How do you know in your heart?" Blow asked.
"Have you ever had a gut feeling?" Oliver responded.
Blow, Capehart and O'Donnell took turns questioning Oliver about his relationship to Zimmerman. Oliver characterized himself as more of an "uncle figure" and a friend of Zimmerman's family.
"So you're not a close friend of George Zimmerman's," Capehart said. "At best…you're really just an acquaintance."
Oliver said that he never used the term "close" to describe his relationship with Zimmerman. "Well, that close was not ever my term," he said. "That close term was coined ever since I came forward to speak on his behalf."
O'Donnell said that Oliver's defense of Zimmerman was based on nothing but a "slim basis of a gut feeling."
Oliver gave up his job to defend Zimmerman. "You're role in this just doesn't make sense to me," O'Donnell said.
"You're right," Oliver said. "My role in this just doesn't make sense. But because of the person I know, that I've grown to know over the past years…this is not a bad person, this is a good person who grew from his previous mistakes some seven years ago."
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