More than any other issue, a single plea seemed to dominate the final week of testimony in the George Zimmerman murder trial. It was that faint cry for help. The now infamous 9-1-1 call the night of February 26, 2012, just seconds before the sound of a gunshot -- the shot that ended the life of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
At various points, down to the last day of testimony, 12 witnesses swore to the same truth. But to a different fact.
First, the truth. Indisputable. Each witness -- two mothers, two fathers, an uncle, a brother, and six friends and neighbors -- attested to hearing the chilling voice in the background of the recorded call. But, then, the fact. The absolute-positive-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt identification. It was Trayvon Martin. No, wait a minute. It was George Zimmerman.
As the jury deliberates, the issue now will be how much weight to accord this conflicting testimony in determining whether Zimmerman told the truth about the events of the night he killed Martin. Is it to be done by simple arithmetic? Three votes for Trayvon, nine for "Georgie," as friends call the shooter? Is it to be done by something much deeper? That determination will be key in concluding whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense (as his defense team has attempted to establish), or whether he is guilty of second-degree murder (as the state has been struggling to prove).
In this connection, commentators were quick to discount the testimony of the two mothers -- Gladys Zimmerman, the mother of the accused, and Sybrina Fulton, the mother of the victim. After all, a mother's testimony has got to be inherently unreliable as biased. Right? Well, maybe not so much. Maybe the commentators have been a little too quick on the trigger. Maybe the impact here remains to be considered.
For me, there is persuasive testimony that is every bit as evocative as the 9-1-1 voice. Helpful, if not dispositive in weighing a mother's identification of a child lost to violence. It is testimony that was never heard in the courtroom of the Zimmerman murder trial, or any courtroom for that matter.
On August 28, 2002, I sat with the late Mamie Till-Mobley, recounting the circumstances surrounding the 1955 lynching of her 14-year-old son Emmett Till in the Mississippi Delta. This was one of the dozens of conversations I had with Mother Mobley during the last six months of her life documenting the story she wanted to leave behind -- a story she hoped would clarify and contextualize for everyone the social meaning of her personal loss, the human cost of racism and the personal sacrifices that were made in the struggle for racial justice.
It was the 47th anniversary of Emmett's brutal, torturous death and 80-year-old Mother Mobley played back for me her memory of the scene in Chicago's A.A. Rayner funeral home in September 1955 when she methodically examined each part of Emmett's mutilated body searching for something only a mother would recognize in her slain child. Then, as now, identity would be an issue at trial. Then, unlike now, the issue was the identity of the body, not the voice.
We walked through that painful process, Mother Mobley and I, and if you have seen the horrific published photographs of Emmett's mutilated remains, you can only begin to imagine what it might have been like for a mother to try to find something she could recognize in those butchered remains laid out on a slab. To find her son was to lose him all at once, for the identification process was her confirmation -- finally after a mother's anguished denial -- that Emmett really was dead. But the conversation surrounding this identification recall nearly 50 years later was equally striking to me. It was the narrative Mother Mobley imagined as she processed each part of Emmett's mangled body, matching it with flash images of his life, as we detailed for her book.
"I kept looking at him on the table and I thought about what it must have been like for him that night," she recalled. "I thought about how afraid he must have been, how at some point that early Sunday morning, he must have known he was going to die. I thought how all alone he must have felt, and I found myself hoping only that he died quickly."
And so she was tormented for years by that fundamental tension of motherhood. On the one hand dedicated to nurturing and preserving the life of her child. On the other hand, hoping he died quickly, so that he would not suffer.
The question of a mother's hope was put to Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton. It came during cross-examination by defense attorney Mark O'Mara. "You certainly had to hope that that was your son screaming even before you heard it, correct?" O'Mara was raising a question about her motivation more than her memory. Her motivation to distort her memory. To create a reality that would stalk her for the rest of her life. "I didn't hope for anything," said Fulton, who earlier had tweeted her followers seeking strength from God to get through it all. "I just simply listened to the tape."
Later, she was pressed by O'Mara on the issue.
"You certainly hoped -- as a mom -- you certainly hope that your son, Trayvon Martin, would not have done anything that would have led to his own death, correct?"
Sybrina Fulton stood her ground.
"What I hoped for is that this would have never happened and he would still be here. That's my hope."
Her hope, and her sense of responsibility. Maybe even guilt. After first hearing the 9-1-1 tape in the office of Sanford, Florida, Mayor Jeff Triplett, Fulton abruptly left, according to Jasmine Rand, one of the Martin family attorneys, clearly believing she had heard the cry for help by her son. "She couldn't help him," Rand asserted, "because he was dead."
That was the sense of responsibility that haunted Mamie Till-Mobley, too, for the rest of her life, as she revealed to me in reflecting on the death of her son. "At some point during his ordeal, in the last moments of his precious life, Emmett must have cried out. Two names. 'God' and 'Mama.' And no one answered the call."
One can only imagine that Sybrina Fulton hopes that distant 9-1-1 voice might one day fade away. If Mamie Till-Mobley's experience is any guide, it is not likely. As she told me, "every shattered piece of my heart has its own special memory of Emmett."
The question about hope was not put to Gladys Zimmerman, but hope is the unifying theme of the mothers' narratives here. Gladys Zimmerman clearly must hold out hope that her son will be exonerated, set free, rehabilitated in the court of public opinion.
Still, they are different, these two mothers. As different as they are alike. One is motivated by her determination to see that her son's death does not go unpunished, while the other is motivated by a deep desire to protect her son from punishment.
So, in the end, they want the same thing -- a just outcome -- even though they want it to mean different things. The challenge now is to determine what it all means and what justice requires. And that depends only partly on whether we believe one mother or the other, and mostly on whether we believe George Zimmerman.