There has been widespread reporting of the civil lawsuit for $100 million being brought by attorney Larry Klayman on behalf of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin almost eight years ago. At the core of the lawsuit is the claim that the key witness against Zimmerman at his trial, Rachel Jeantel, was a fake witness pretending to be Diamond Eugene, the 16-year-old girl who was on the phone with Trayvon in the last minutes before his death. The lawsuit, based on investigative reporting by documentary producer Joel Gilbert, targets Trayvon’s parents, their lawyer Benjamin Crump, both Jeantel and the real Diamond Eugene, prosecution lawyers and the state of Florida, all of whom, according to the lawsuit, knew or should have known of the witness substitution. The Martin case had far-reaching implications, poisoning race relations and resulting in the creation (by its own account) of Black Lives Matter. For Klayman, setting the record straight in this case and imposing high damages “has the potential to break the back of the race-baiting industry, to set a precedent that you can’t get away with this stuff anymore.”
Not on the list, but, as Gilbert points out, “a main culprit in this story,” are the mainstream media. Zimmerman was taken into custody by the Sanford, Florida police following the shooting and released without charges. This was because their investigation found his claim that he had acted in self-defense convincing. According to Zimmerman’s story, he was a member of Neighborhood Watch in his housing complex, which had experienced a wave of robberies. He had called the non-emergency number of the police when he saw a suspicious person hanging around in the rain. He left his car briefly when he was asked in which direction the person had gone, but returned to it and did not see Trayvon Martin until the latter jumped him, broke his nose, and pummeled his head on the concrete path while he cried for help. His story was supported both by his injuries and eyewitness testimony. But the media fastened on the alternative narrative promoted by the Martin family and their attorney, Crump, of a white racist vigilante who willfully gunned down an unarmed black child buying snacks for his younger brother.
In fact, Zimmerman was Hispanic (the media would come up with the term “white Hispanic” to deal with this uncomfortable fact), an Obama voter and a mentor for black troubled youth. On the other hand, Trayvon was not the 10- or 12-year-old whose picture was distributed to and by the media but 17 and over six feet tall, with a penchant for using his fists that had contributed to his being suspended from high school three times that school year.
That the state of Florida put Zimmerman on trial despite the findings of the Sanford police was due to the huge nationwide campaign, based on the alternative narrative, demanding Zimmerman be prosecuted. The pressure became irresistible when Crump suddenly emerged with a new witness. On March 19, 2012, three weeks after the shooting, Crump produced excerpts from a recorded phone interview he had conducted with someone he identified as Diamond Eugene, who had been on the phone with Trayvon when he died. The girl said that Trayvon told her Zimmerman followed and challenged him, initiating the altercation. CNN’s legal analyst immediately claimed that testimony “dispels the notion of self-defense.”
Bolstered by the new witness, the state set out to prosecute Zimmerman, and on April 2, prosecutors went out to interview Diamond Eugene, whose address they obtained from Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. On arrival, they were told Diamond was at a different address, and when they arrived there, Rachel Jeantel came forward and identified herself as Diamond Eugene.
In Gilbert’s reconstruction of events, Diamond Eugene, who only reluctantly and belatedly came forward under what Crump in a TV interview admitted was pressure from the Trayvon camp, had now balked, whether because she did not want to commit perjury under oath or because she did not want her boyfriend to know she had also been romancing Trayvon — or both. The “solution” was to substitute Rachel Jeantel, whom Gilbert believes (on the basis of DNA evidence) is Diamond Eugene’s half-sister, although she is poles apart in appearance and intelligence and proved a terrible witness on the stand.
The media, for all its obsession with the story, showed no interest in exploring even surface aspects that should have aroused suspicion. Crump had repeatedly emphasized that Diamond Eugene was a minor, only 16 years old. Rachel Jeantel was 18. Nor did anyone puzzle over the oddity that someone named Rachel Jeantel should be nicknamed “Diamond Eugene.” The media are equally lazy and irresponsible this time around. Their reaction to having their narrative upended has been to bury the story, and when that has proved no longer possible, to heap scorn on it — they’ve done everything but look into it.
When Gilbert introduced his documentary and accompanying book, both entitled The Trayvon Hoax: Unmasking the Witness Fraud that Divided America, at a press conference in Washington on September 16, 2019, the mainstream media ignored the story. The only coverage was by a handful of conservative websites, including American Thinker, World Net Daily, and Townhall. This was despite dogged efforts by Gilbert to enlist the interest of Florida papers that had breathlessly, day by day covered the original story. The answer by each reporter, when there was a response at all, was a variation on the reply he received from the managing editor of the Miami Herald, Rick Hirsch: “Thanks for reaching out. We are going to pass.” Gilbert is nothing if not dogged, and when he followed up to ask why, he says that several reporters were frank that they were afraid to be first with the story, anticipating they would set off a social media storm that would include demands that they be fired.
Simply ignoring the story ceased to be possible when Klayman (founder of the invaluable gadfly Judicial Watch) filed his lawsuit demanding an attention-grabbing $100 million, the content of the suit closely following Gilbert’s documentary. Gilbert’s reporting was a painstakingly thorough and imaginative piece of investigative journalism. He obtained Trayvon’s telephone records (which of course the prosecution also had) and went through 750 pages, including thousands of tweets and photos. It was immediately apparent Rachel Jeantel could not be Diamond Eugene. Trayvon, Gilbert realized, was a social star with many female friends, whom their photos and messaging showed to be slim, trim, and smart, nothing like the slow-witted, overweight Rachel Jeantel. Finding a photo of Diamond, however, proved frustrating until Gilbert came upon tweets in which Diamond says she is at that moment sending photos of herself, and Gilbert realized that all the photos are time-stamped, so he could match the photos to the tweets. But even once he had her picture (a pretty girl, as he had expected) Gilbert did not have her identity, and tracking her down was a challenging task, which Gilbert describes in both his documentary and book.
While the size of the lawsuit made the story news, other methods to undercut the story’s impact came into play. Gilbert and Klayman had scheduled a press conference and showing of the film at the Coral Gables Art Cinema on December 5. The theater abruptly canceled when, according to its co-executive director Brenda Moe, it was blasted in emails, phone calls, and a social media firestorm. (What Moe did not say publicly, but that Gilbert says she told him, was that the mayor of Coral Gables had phoned, and city council members and their attorney were in her lobby as she spoke to him, demanding that she cancel the showing.) No other forum willing to risk the fallout has thus far been found.
Most of the media coverage of the Klayman lawsuit has consisted of a brief statement that Zimmerman alleges witness substitution followed by Crump’s characterization of the claims as “baseless imaginings.” Crump is almost always given the last word: “I have every confidence that this unfounded and reckless lawsuit will be revealed for what it is — another failed attempt to defend the indefensible and a shameless attempt to profit off the lives and grief of others.”
When the mainstream media has gone beyond this, they have clung to the old narrative. Zimmerman remains the villain — this time for cruelly re-victimizing the grieving family. The Miami Herald concludes its editorial on the lawsuit: “We have one request of Zimmerman: Please, go away and leave Trayvon’s parents alone.” An opinion piece in the same paper by Fabiola Santiago is even more scathing: “How much more injustice can one family take?… His family is the aggrieved party in this tragedy. But George Zimmerman isn’t done being a scumbag.” In an op-ed, CNN’s legal analyst, Joey Jackson, ignores the legal issues (a legal analyst should find a hoax witness no small matter). Instead, he excoriates Zimmerman: “How disgusting, distasteful and unfortunate that even nearly eight years later a young black life could mean so little to the person who took it away…. It’s as if he’s saying: ‘How dare prosecutors seek to hold me accountable for taking this young man’s life — does it really matter?’ ” Columnist for the Tribune chain Mary Sanchez attributes the lawsuit to Zimmerman’s bad character, “the aspect of personality that grounds intent and guides action.” ABC Nightly News, after dismissing the lawsuit out of hand as based on “the unsubstantiated claim” that there had been a fake witness, talks of “growing outrage” that it had been filed, leaving the family feeling that Zimmerman “is victimizing them again.”
What was lacking in all the mainstream media coverage was any attempt to examine the evidence Gilbert laid out — or even to look at Gilbert’s documentary or read his book. Two black professors, Glenn Loury from Brown University and John McWhorter from Columbia University, did both, and on Loury’s “Bloggingheads” TV program provided the most thoughtful coverage of the story to date. Both admit to being very uncomfortable that the source is Joel Gilbert, in Loury’s words “a right-wing journalist who makes birther-like accusations about Barack Obama, a guy who comes on the Alex Jones show, a conspiracy theorist.” And yet both agree that Gilbert’s “very meticulous case,” his “almost astonishingly diligent” investigation had totally transformed their view of the Trayvon Martin case. And both see the case (and several other prominent racially charged cases since) as “a terrible indictment of journalism,” which had abandoned objectivity to indulge in “a kind of cheerleading frenzy to pile on to a narrative that is evidence of either virtue signaling … or just a kind of crass partisan our side versus their side and we’re gonna win.”
But what of the media argument that George Zimmerman walked free while the Martin family lost their son and should not suffer more at the hands of the man who shot him, even if in self-defense? Klayman’s response is, “They say hasn’t this family suffered enough but they wanted to put my client in prison for life.” Moreover, despite being exonerated by the jury, in the court of public opinion Zimmerman remained guilty, pursued by the media narrative. He was “withdrawn” from the courses he was taking in criminal justice when the New Black Panthers called in a bomb threat, no one would give him a job for fear of becoming the target of an angry mob, and he was fearful of being seen in public (a reasonable fear given that he escaped an assassination attempt by inches — the shooter was sentenced to 20 years). Zimmerman reacted to his pariah status by acting out, further damaging his prospects and making portraying him as a bad apple even more convincing.
Benjamin Crump, in contrast, rode to fame as a civil rights lawyer and spokesman on the Trayvon case. He obtained his cut of the large settlement for the Martin parents from the housing complex where Trayvon died. He is author of the recently published Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People, in which Trayvon Martin’s death serves as a prime example of supposed “legalized genocide.” (Along with the state of Florida, HarperCollins, Crump’s publisher, is the other deep pocket named in the Zimmerman suit, in this case for publishing what the lawsuit claims are inaccurate statements about the Martin case.) Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, became a political figure in the wake of her son’s tragic death, speaking at the Democratic convention in 2016. She is now running for Dade County Commissioner, with Hillary Clinton drumming up campaign contributions for her. (Gilbert points out she clearly knew Rachel Jeantel was not Diamond Eugene because she had met with Diamond and driven her home weeks before the prosecution looked for her.) Even Rachel Jeantel profited; her disabilities led a group of black professional women to mentor and support her.
Ironically, while the media is, as Gilbert has said, “a main culprit in this story,” it is also a victim. Its very success in creating “narratives” has led to a climate in which the media fears to depart from them. Even professors Loury and McWhorter, securely tenured and far from the typical run of media group-thinkers, were fearful. Shortly after Gilbert released the documentary, Loury says he told his viewers he and McWhorter “were going to set the world on fire about a topic that you just couldn’t believe, it was so hot. And then we weaseled out. Under the excuse it was just unspeakable, it was like something even to talk about what we couldn’t talk about would be talking too much about it.” They stepped up to the plate when the lawsuit produced a wave of coverage, even if so much of it was hostile. But Loury was quite right about the backlash. In its wake, a chastened Loury said he “listened to his viewers” and submitted to being lectured on the case on air by journalist Robert Wright, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Bloggingheads TV.
Zimmerman’s lawsuit may not bring the answers it promises. The case could be thrown out on the basis of issues unrelated to the merits. The first test will be early in 2020; the lawsuit is currently being served with a request for discovery, and the opposition has 45 days to respond, doubtless with a request for dismissal. Or the case could eventually be settled out of court. This makes the role of the media all the more important. Will fear continue to triumph over willingness to scrutinize the core facts? Will any mainline news source, any “investigative” television program, reexamine the evidence Gilbert lays out? Will they search out new evidence? Will any of them follow up with probing interviews of the protagonists in this drama? The Trayvon Martin case became a match that ignited race relations, making it important to know if those involved deceived the court and the public. And because Gilbert brings baggage that allows the media, however unfairly, automatically to discredit his work, it is all the more vital that mainstream media do the necessary due diligence to ascertain the truth. As Loury said in his original broadcast on Gilbert’s documentary, “If you want to make a real moral argument that has political effect in this country, you can’t base it upon hoaxes, lies, and ruses.”