WEST PALM BEACH, FLA.: When he was shot, Trayvon Martin was not the baby-faced boy in the photo that has been on front pages across the country. And George Zimmerman wasn’t the beefy-looking figure in the widely published mug shot.
Both photos are a few years old and no longer entirely accurate. Yet they may have helped shape initial public perceptions of the deadly shooting.
“When you have such a lopsided visual comparison, it just stands to reason that people would rush to judgment,” said Kenny Irby, who teaches visual journalism at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The most widely seen picture of Martin, released by his family, was evidently taken a few years ago and shows a smiling, round-cheeked youngster in a red T-shirt. But at his death, Martin was 17 years old, around 6 feet tall and, according to his family’s attorney, about 140 pounds.
Zimmerman, 28, is best known from a 7-year-old booking photo of an apparently heavyset figure with an imposing stare, pierced ear and facial hair, the orange collar of his jail uniform visible. The picture, released by police following the deadly shooting, was taken after Zimmerman’s 2005 arrest on an assault-on-an-officer charge that was eventually dropped.
In a police video made public this week of Zimmerman being brought in for questioning a half-hour after the shooting, the 5-foot-9 man appears much slimmer.
In a case that has caused a nationwide furor over race and the laws of self-defense, Martin was shot to death by Zimmerman in the city of Sanford on Feb. 26 as the unarmed black teenager was walking back from a convenience store.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, has claimed self-defense, saying he opened fire after Martin punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and began slamming his head on the sidewalk.
Black leaders and others are demanding Zimmerman’s arrest on murder or manslaughter charges; state and federal authorities are still investigating.
Betsi Grabe, a professor at Indiana University-Bloomington who has studied the effect of news images on public opinion, said photos that gain the most traction play into the desires of both journalists and the public for a story with a distinct victim and aggressor.
“At the center of most stories we tell in our society, cross-culturally and across the centuries, is the struggle between good and evil,” she said. “If the ingredients are there, that is what journalists will grab onto and present.”
Grabe said it is natural to present the most innocent-looking image of the person believed to be the victim, and the most menacing one of the suspect.
New images emerge
A more complex portrait of the two figures has emerged since then. A photo of a beaming Zimmerman looking sharp in a jacket and tie has come out, along with a more recent picture of Martin, with gold teeth and a white sleeveless undershirt. At the same time, it was learned that Martin had been suspended from school for marijuana residue in his backpack.
The Associated Press has not been able to verify the sources or creators of what are purported to be more recent photographs of Martin circulating online and elsewhere. The family’s attorney has not released the photos.
“Everyone’s views seem to be gyrating back and forth with each new scrap of evidence that comes out,” said David O. Markus, a prominent Miami defense attorney. “This is why we have courts and juries, and why the process is slow. No one should rush to judgment.”
Gordon Coonfield, a communications professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, said the early perceptions of Zimmerman as a vigilante may ultimately have no bearing on the case.
He cited the case of Rodney King, the black motorist beaten two decades ago by white Los Angeles police officers in an episode captured on video. The officers were acquitted in state court, though two were later found guilty on federal charges.
“I think the nation felt quite certain it saw the truth of what happened to Rodney King, and the DA tried the case as if the images spoke for themselves,” Coonfield said. “Yet the state criminal court decided the images were not self-evidently true. The defense won by offering a more convincing explanation of the images, focusing on what could not be seen — officers’ motives, reasoning, and judgment.”