Excerpt from Suspicion Nation, by Lisa Bloom. Copyright 2014.
Foreword, by Jeffrey Toobin
By the standards of most criminal trials, there were few issues in dispute in the matter of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. This was no whodunit. The identity of the killer, the murder weapon, the time and cause of death—all were agreed upon by both the prosecution and defense. In that regard, it was a simple case. At the same time, the Zimmerman trial touched upon some of the most haunting and complex issues in American life. Race, violence, guns, the fairness of the criminal justice system—these are the subjects at the heart of Lisa Bloom’s Suspicion Nation. With the mind of a lawyer and the eye of a journalist, Bloom achieves a remarkable double success: meticulously examining the evidence in this case while also placing the whole Zimmerman saga in a broad historical and cultural context.
The heart of Bloom’s book is her critique of the presentation of the case against Zimmerman by Florida’s State’s Attorneys. There was really only one issue in the trial. What was Zimmerman’s intent when he fired the fatal shot into Trayvon Martin’s heart? Did his actions reflect the recklessness necessary to find him guilty of second degree murder, as the prosecution contended? Or was Zimmerman merely acting in self defense, as his lawyers maintained? It was not an easy case for either side, and we all now know that Zimmerman was swiftly acquitted. But Bloom argues that the prosecutors could have won this case—but, in simple terms, they blew it. As Bloom writes, “The overlooked evidence, lack of witness preparation, and poor strategic choices made by the state’s attorneys were nothing short of astonishing.”
Bloom expertly picks apart the evidence in the case to show the missed chances by the prosecution. Consider one example. In his statements to the police and the news media, Zimmerman asserted that he shot Martin because he believed the young man was reaching for Zimmerman’s gun.
But as Bloom carefully examines the evidence, we see that Zimmerman’s gun was actually hidden inside his waistband—and behind his back. How could Martin have seen the gun, much less reached for it in a way that prompted Zimmerman to shoot first? Bloom writes, “And yet Trayvon, somehow, on that wet, black, low-visibility night, saw through the bulk of Zimmerman’s body, through Zimmerman’s shirt, through his jacket to a matte black gun concealed in a matte black holster clipped inside his waistband. Can anyone possibly believe this story?” Bloom, for one, clearly does not.
In the end, Bloom places the death of Trayvon Martin in the larger context of the history of race and violence in the United States. She unpacks the story of the Stand Your Ground defense (which Zimmerman’s lawyers ended up not using) and explores Trayvon’s own history in Florida school system as a way of looking at its systemic flaws—flaws that are unfortunately shared in many school systems across the country. She looks, too, at another part of the story that is essential but often ignored: the question of guns laws and gun rights. It is a simple truth that Trayvon Martin would be alive today if George Zimmerman did not buy his gun.
Bloom’s story is about Zimmerman, Martin, and the subsidiary cast of lawyers, cops, and witnesses, as well as her exclusive interview with the one non-white juror sitting on the case, who all became national figures for a brief moment in 2013. But the greatest significance of Suspicion Nation is that it is also about us. As she writes, “At the root of all of it is fear—overblown fear of crime, inordinate fear of strangers, deep-seated fear of difference, and in particular, lingering, unspoken fear that African Americans are criminals. So many of us are suspicious. We eye each other warily. And in twenty-first century America, that fear is often armed, locked and loaded. And so the body count continues to rise, in an atmosphere of lawlessness.”
Bloom maintains that our nation’s biases and cultural blind spots created the conditions that led to the death of Trayvon Martin and made George Zimmerman’s acquittal the most likely outcome. There is no better way than reading Suspicion Nation to learn how and why this sad story unfolded the way it did.