by Wendy Werris
In summer 2013, civil rights attorney and legal analyst Lisa Bloom covered the trial of George Zimmerman—who was accused of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.—for NBC. Halfway through the proceedings, Bloom had an “aha” moment that planted the seed for her forthcoming book, Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It (Counterpoint, Feb. 26).
“I started to notice there was a great deal of very powerful evidence in the case that the prosecutors weren’t arguing,” Bloom says. “One of the most important pieces of evidence came from Zimmerman’s videotaped reenactment for the police, where he states that Trayvon saw his gun, holstered behind his right hip, and reached for it during their scuffle, which is why Zimmerman shot him.” But Bloom, who reviewed the evidence and watched each day’s proceedings during the trial, realized that it wasn’t possible for Martin to have seen the gun—because it was holstered behind Zimmerman, who was lying down and also wearing a shirt and a jacket. “I watched this over and over again and thought, how did they miss this? And what else are they missing?” Bloom says.
It turns out they were missing plenty—so much so that when Bloom flew home after Zimmerman’s acquittal, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I really couldn’t let it go,” she says. “A lot of people feel this case was an injustice, but they’re told that the jury system played out and the man was acquitted. But I’m here to say it was an injustice, and from a lawyer’s view inside the courtroom, I can show you what happened—how, by the last week of the trial, the evidence went in one direction, and the prosecution in another.”
Bloom has been a civil rights lawyer since 1986, and she has covered trials for CNN, the Today Show, and MSNBC for nearly 20 years, in addition to having her own show on Court TV. She says she wrote the Suspicion Nation in less than four months, working around the clock. “I wanted to do it right away, while this issue is still very much pressing in people’s minds.” Bloom’s book includes a great deal of new information, which she uncovered after interviewing Martin’s friend Rachel Jeantell, who testified during the trial, as well as one of the jurors on the case, who told her about what went on in the jury room. “My book has a lot of behind-the-scenes information, and it’s going to surprise a lot of people about the evidence that was there and that the prosecution missed,” Bloom says. “The state of Florida bungled the case from prosecutor to closing arguments to judge.”
It was natural for Bloom to take up civil rights law when she graduated from Yale law school. Her mother, attorney Gloria Allred, is a lawyer known for representing celebrity clients and taking on women’s discrimination cases. Her father, Peyton Bray, was “a hippie radical until his last days—a great, fierce independent thinker and the smartest guy I ever knew,” Bloom says. “He would give me books about anarchy inscribed, ‘To Lisa, Smash the state! Love, Dad,’ when I was 12 years old.” Bloom’s law practice in Los Angeles focuses on domestic violence, sexual harassment, and racial discrimination cases. The Bloom Firm includes four attorneys—“all of them women,” she says with a smile.
The corporate law route never appealed to Bloom. “There are plenty of lawyers happy to do that who are well paid,” she says. “I wanted to do something I believed in and cared about. I wake up every morning and I’m excited. We go up against fleets of lawyers with their investigators and publicists, so we have to be smarter and more nimble. But we can beat them, and we do.”
Suspicion Nation also delves into the issue of racial profiling in the U.S. “It runs rampant in our system,” Bloom says. “Also, our lax gun laws mean there are too many people like Zimmerman who have guns and use them with little accountability.” As part of her research, she visited the scene of the Martin shooting, in Sanford. While there, she began to question another aspect of Zimmerman’s defense: he said that Martin banged his head repeatedly on the concrete, prompting him to shoot the teenager in self-defense. “Trayvon’s body was found on the lawn, a substantial distance from the concrete. That negates part of the self-defense story. Zimmerman’s head injuries were not consistent with his head repeatedly hitting concrete.”
In her book, Bloom recounts several incidents similar to the Martin shooting that have occurred since then. “And those are just the ones that have gotten publicity,” she notes. “Racial profiling is everywhere. It doesn’t just happen in Sanford, but also in Michigan and Wisconsin and New York City. A lot of this is reminiscent of trials from the civil rights era in small towns in the South, where a white person kills a black person and walks.”
Bloom is passionate about finding ways to prevent more crimes—and trials—like Zimmerman’s. “We need more black prosecutors, for one thing,” she says. “Only about 5% of them are black. Prosecutors are more powerful than judges: they decide whether to charge a person or not, what to charge the defendant with, which plea bargains will be offered, and how sentencing is determined.”
Suspicion Nation also suggests that judges should reconsider how they give jurors instructions before each trial. “For instance, a judge could say, ‘Most of us, including myself, are [racially] biased in one way or another. Set aside these biases while you’re serving on this jury. Change the race of the person on trial in your mind and see how that affects your judgment.’ ”
Suspicion Nation is set to be published on the second anniversary of Martin’s death, and it will be the first book about the Zimmerman trial. “The Trayvon Martin case is iconic, one that people will be studying 30 years from now,” Bloom says. “And as I discuss in the book, [the verdict] was almost preordained. I wanted there to be something on record that explains what happened and why it went wrong. This was different from a lot of cases I’ve covered—much bigger than just these two guys on that dark night in Sanford, Fla. It really had struck a nerve.”