While other people watch reality shows, a marketing specialist in Michigan who goes by the name "Bcclist" spends time in his yard, calculating Trayvon Martin’s last steps with a tape measure and smartphone stop watch.
He is joined on the Internet by Dave Turner, an Illinois man who had his sons yell in the dark from a distance of 30 feet to see whether he could tell which one cried for help.
Both men are often guided by the work of “Tchoupi,” an engineer with a Ph.D. in physics who has spent countless hours making maps, analyzing witness statements and fleeting headlight patterns in surveillance videos to compute George Zimmerman’s moves the night he killed Trayvon.
The three are among a growing group of people on the Internet so fascinated by the mystery of the killing that captivated the nation that they are out to crack the case themselves. They listen to jailhouse calls, pore over witness statements, study evidentiary documents and measure walking speeds.
After hundreds of hours going through the records, some believe they have debunked Zimmerman’s account of what happened that rainy Feb. 26 night in a gated community in Sanford, when the former neighborhood watch volunteer says he was jumped by Trayvon and was forced to kill him during a struggle. Others say the same evidence points a finger at Trayvon, the 17-year-old Miami Gardens high school junior who they believe contributed to his own death. Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.
Experts say the amateur sleuths may very well be the new-media reality for high-profile criminal cases in Florida, where extraordinary public records laws make evidence widely available before trial. In a big case such as this one, prosecutors provide information electronically, meaning anyone with Internet access can comb through the evidence. The bloggers say their intense interest in the case underscores a deep-seated distrust in both law enforcement and the mainstream media, who they blame for shoddy coverage and poor analysis of the facts.
Florida’s “trials of the century” take place so publicly that the exposure of evidence raises profound questions about whether the public’s right to know has trumped a defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial. With such a serious risk of jury pool contamination, Zimmerman’s attorney jumped into the fray to be sure that the evidence favorable to the defense was reviewed on the blogosphere, too.
Dissing the mainstream media
“The mainstream media overlooked everything,” said Turner, a member of a crime forum called Justice Quest. “Did you really do your job if you didn’t look at the evidence?”
Bcclist listened to hours and hours of car commercials, so he could figure out from the beeping open-door sound recorded in Zimmerman’s call to police what kind of car he drove before that detail became widely known. Criminal defense attorney Jeralyn Merritt, who blogs at TalkLeft.com, seems embarrassed when she admits to spending a recent seven-hour drive listening to the jailhouse recordings of Zimmerman chatting on the phone with his wife and sister. Two citizen journalists in Texas created a site — www.theyalwaysgetaway.com — where they have posted most of the material made available in the case.
Many of them say their research shows there is a two-minute gap in Zimmerman’s account that suggests he is hiding something. Their reenactments, they say, suggest that what Zimmerman says happened that night would have been physically impossible: He couldn’t have drawn a gun that fast during a vicious attack, and they believe Zimmerman’s telling of the story would require Trayvon to have sprinted across the housing complex. The Web sleuths can pinpoint Zimmerman’s inconsistencies from memory, and are deeply suspicious of witnesses who gave statements to police that did not match their 911 calls.
Although those witnesses were not named, the researchers studied their statements and compared them to real-estate records and Google maps to figure out their names and where they live. Zimmerman supporters showed a subsequent probe of the witnesses’ Facebook accounts indicates at least two of them signed petitions in support of Trayvon, putting their objectivity in doubt.
At the same time that some try to discredit Zimmerman, there is a rising movement to shine what one blogger calls a “disinfecting light” on Trayvon, whose social media accounts were picked apart in a quest to portray him as a drug-addled thug who may have participated in videotaped fight-club events in the months before his death. They believe the AriZona watermelon soda and Skittles he purchased minutes before he died were the fixings for a drug concoction called Purple Drank, and they present unverified screen shots from his social media pages to prove it.
The surveillance video from the 7-Eleven he shopped at just before he died shows what even some Trayvon- supporters say is the teen interacting with teenagers outside the store and possibly buying a cigar from them. The cigar purchase is believed to have been for him to make a “blunt,” a cigar filled with marijuana used to mask the illegal drug.
“In this case, so many people believed that Zimmerman had hunted down and murdered this innocent black teenager, and that it was Trayvon screaming for help on the 911 calls, when all the hard evidence showed it was just the opposite,” Wagist.com blogger Dan Linehart said in an email to The Herald. He said the analysis being done on the Internet is far less damaging than the mainstream media’s portrayal of Zimmerman as a neighborhood vigilante who benefited from a botched investigation.
Other pro-Zimmerman bloggers have set their sights on Trayvon’s parents in an effort to portray them as irresponsible parents profiting from their son’s death. They have poked holes in the story provided by the girl who says she was on the phone with Trayvon as he walked home from the convenience store that night. Conservative bloggers posted the social media accounts of a girl they say is her to show she carried on after the killing as though nothing had happened.
Another site posted the name, address and family photographs of the cousin who told police Zimmerman molested her when they were both kids.
Through the lens of a defense lawyer
Merritt, a criminal defense lawyer in Denver, has one of the few pro-Zimmerman sites where talk of Trayvon’s drug use, Twitter posts and scurrilous accusations about him are off-limits. A veteran blogger and legal analyst, she views the case through the lens of the rights of the accused.
“I love that instead of reporting gossip, we can use actual documents,” she said. “I look at what the state can prove, not what Zimmerman can prove. He doesn’t have to prove anything.”
She believes the tracing of Trayvon’s steps that night shows he lingered too long, which could back up Zimmerman’s account that the teenager circled back and attacked him.
“I went from being fascinated about this case to trying to track the state’s theory and how they were going to make their case,” she said. “I don’t think they can make their case, if they are relying on the theory that he followed Trayvon. Following someone is not illegal and does not make him the aggressor.”
The bulk of the other amateur investigators came to the opposite conclusion. They say there are too many holes in Zimmerman’s story for his self-defense claim to hold up in court.
The blogger who goes by Tchoupi created an image-sharing site with a sophisticated histogram, mapping out what he believes were Zimmerman’s movements. Analyzing the lights passing by the Retreat at Twin Lakes clubhouse surveillance video the night of the shooting, Tchoupi theorizes that Zimmerman drove around several times in an apparent search for Trayvon, although he acknowledges he does not have proof that the lights are from Zimmerman’s vehicle.
“I have never been in a country where I could get access to not all, but most of the information of a case so early in the process,” Tchoupi, who hails from France and lives on the U.S. West Coast, told The Miami Herald. “It allows people to get involved and analyze it themselves. It’s quite amazing. I have to admit: It’s not fair to George.”
Like many of the other researchers, he asked that his real name not be published, because he doesn’t want his day job associated with his hobby.
Zimmerman called police the evening of Feb. 26 to say he saw a suspicious-looking teenager who walked too slowly and looked around at houses. When the kid took off running, Zimmerman was recorded going after him.
The call ends and about two minutes later, another one picks up: the first call to 911 about the two struggling.
The timing of the calls is critical, because Zimmerman’s accounts to police would suggest that it took him two minutes and 39 seconds to walk 100 feet, according to Tchoupi’s analysis. At the same time, if Zimmerman’s account were true, several bloggers point out that Trayvon would have had to have sprinted.
They also note that Trayvon’s body was about 50 feet from where Zimmerman said he was attacked, suggesting that the entire incident occurred in a different location than Zimmerman said. (The change in location, they believe, is because he doesn’t want to admit that he pursued Trayvon after the police call ended.)
“It’s quite clear to me that he’s not telling the whole truth, if he is telling the truth at all,” Tchoupi said.
Many of the armchair investigators have taken their theories to YouTube, where they post video reenactments and maps.
“You have a CSI phenomenon, where people think you can take a blurry video, focus it and find the truth,” said a blogger who goes by “whonoze.”
“On the other hand there are indisputable facts: the non-emergency call, Google maps and a clock. Stick those things together. People were not doing that, and were coming up with scenarios that were physically impossible.”
A user named “Super Filexican” has posted 41 such profanity-laced YouTube videos and has been banned twice for hate speech. He said he embarked on his 200 hours of research to support Zimmerman, who he believed was being convicted by the media. But he said his analysis helped him determine that it would have been impossible for Zimmerman to fire a round from a holstered gun while getting pummeled by someone who straddled him.
“His stories are almost like a child’s stories,” he said in an email to The Miami Herald. “You have goons jumping out of bushes calling you ‘homey.’ You have the same goon attacking for no reason. You have the ‘hero’ of the story pulling off superhuman acts. It’s pure silliness.”
Many of the researchers share their theories at bcclist.com, a website where the comments section sometimes soars into the thousands.
The Bcclist moderator, Christopher, says he works on the case from about 7 p.m. to midnight every night. “I’m calculating distances while other people are watching Real Housewives of New Jersey,” he said. “My wife thinks I’m obsessed.”
The bloggers all agree that that their Web traffic skyrocketed since they took on the case. Axiom Amnesia, where much of the information is posted, said it once got 80,000 hits on a single day. When the recordings of the 911 calls were released, the site could not sustain the volume of traffic.
Viewers are most interested, the site’s administrators said, in lab results that show Trayvon did not have Zimmerman’s DNA on his sleeves.
The administrators of that site, Heit & Cheri, are unusual in that they have paid for access to the Duval County server reserved for the media.
“Our goal is to highlight the inconsistencies,” Cheri said. “That’s what people have come to expect from us.”
At the start of the case, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, sought to have the entire case file sealed, and the state attorney agreed. Media lawyers, including The Herald’s, intervened, and the judge agreed to release the court record, but with witness names covered. O’Mara filed several court motions to keep the most damaging information about the molestation accusations out of the files, because they would hurt Zimmerman’s chance at a fair trial, but the judge refused to flout Florida’s public record law.
Now Zimmerman’s defense attorney said he has two interns whose sole task is to keep track of what’s on the blogs.
“Most of it is crazy, but there are a couple of nuggets in there,” O’Mara said in a May interview. Of one blog, he said: “It’s absurd, and it’s never going away. The blog must have people who are up all night long endlessly analyzing evidence. They are doing my job for me.”
O’Mara admits he gets hooked on examining the evidence, too. “It starts out OK, and then you are up all night,” he said. “One day I will come home, my computer will be gone and my wife will have divorced me.”
A woman, her computer and 9 cats
Natalie Jackson, a lawyer for Trayvon’s parents, suspects O’Mara’s dive into social media helped incite the movement.
“The act of the defense of putting on a case in social media propelled a lot of these people, and they ended up blogging and using evidence to prove his client guilty,” Jackson said. “When the defense embraced social media, everyone said it was a great innovative thing. I don’t know; I am not so sure.”
The lawyers in the case agree that the bloggers are doing the work that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars to produce. The maps the bloggers have made normally cost about $3,000 to have made, Jackson said.
Attorney Jose Baez, who successfully represented accused killer Casey Anthony in what Time magazine called “The Social Media Trial of the Century,” said the armchair experts do more harm than good.
“Florida’s public-record law needs to bow to a defendant’s right to a fair trial,” he said. “Some woman sitting behind her computer with nine cats knows more about the case than anybody. What you end up with is a dog and pony show, and people want to march in the parade. I think it is severely perverting justice.”