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Posthumous Profiling? Puzzling Pieces Abound in the Trayvon Martin Case

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There seems to be no end to the proliferation of puzzling information in the wake of the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin. While the evidence suggests that George Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin before killing him, many now wonder whether the Sanford Police posthumously profiled Trayvon as well by failing to conduct a thorough and professional investigation of his death.

Let's review the facts.

We now hear leaks telling us that Trayvon was a delinquent who was suspended from school for marijuana possession, that he was investigated for jewelry theft, that he attacked a bus driver, and made aggressive tweets under the name "NO_LIMIT_N***A" (which neither Twitter nor the Martin family have confirmed is Trayvon Martin's). These leaks paint a picture of Trayvon as a young black male aggressor, and Zimmerman as the victim. Are these leaks attempts to distract from the real issue in the case -- the Sanford Department Police's failure to conduct a thorough and professional investigation of this homicide?

And the shortcomings of the Trayvon Martin homicide investigation (or lack thereof) keep piling up. The most shocking aspect of this tragedy is the apparent failure of the Sanford Police Department to fully investigate this homicide when it occurred one month ago. As best we can tell, the Sanford Police Department accepted the explanation of George Zimmerman that he acted in self-defense and failed to take sufficient steps to determine whether the other evidence in the case corroborated or was in conflict with his explanation. During the first 24 hours after Trayvon Martin's death, the Sanford Police Department's investigation should have included the following steps:

  • Zimmerman should have been taken into custody on the night of the shooting because the police had probable cause to arrest him for manslaughter.
  • The crime scene should have been frozen and sealed off.
  • Zimmerman should have been booked, processed and fingerprinted, including being photographed, blood being drawn, his clothing being seized as evidence, and toxicology tests performed. Any injuries received should have been treated and reported that night.
  • Police should have canvassed the neighborhood for eyewitnesses and contacted witnesses on the 911 tapes.
  • Professional homicide detectives should have been brought in immediately to the comb the sealed crime scene for evidence and evaluate it.
  • Police should have contacted the District Attorney's Office for an evaluation of the case.
  • Police should have re-canvassed the neighborhood the following morning.
  • Homicide detectives should have created a 24 hour chronology of everyone who spoke to Zimmerman and Trayvon in the 24 hours before Trayvon's death, including where they went, who they talked to, and what they did, and reviewing relevant evidence including cell phone records.
  • After all this initial evidence and information gathering, a homicide supervisor should have reviewed it and determined next steps, including whether there was a need for an inquest or autopsy.

Clearly these procedures were not followed in this case, but why not? Are the Sanford Police Department's failures simple incompetence, or was the Department purposefully dragging its heels? Either way, the press leaks characterizing Trayvon Martin as the young black male aggressor and Zimmerman as the victim are detracting from the facts and failures of the Sanford Police Department.

These puzzling pieces must bear out answers. The Martins and the American public want answers. Every family deserves to know the circumstances under which their loved one died, regardless of whether the killer claimed self-defense. Families must not be left wondering what happened.

So now is the time for the Department of Justice to establish protocols for all state and local police to follow in the investigation of every homicide, even if a homicide may have been in self-defense. The police must never be permitted to rely solely on the word of a killer without conducting a thorough investigation.

We sadly cannot change Trayvon Martin's death, but we can take steps to ensure he did not die in vain. If the Department of Justice establishes homicide investigation protocols for state and local police departments, this will be part of an enduring memorial to Trayvon Martin's legacy, and hopefully spare other families the grief of not knowing the circumstances under which their child was killed.

Deborah Ramirez, a professor of law at Northeastern University School of Law and Founder of the Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Initiative (PfP), testified before the United States House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties on Tuesday about this case.

Tara Lai Quinlan, a New York attorney, and Director of the Partnering for Prevention and Community Safety Initiative (PfP) at Northeastern University School of Law, is currently pursuing an LLM in Criminal Law, Criminology & Criminal Justice at King's College London.