The subtitle of legal pundit Lisa Bloom’s new book, Suspicion Nation, is a bit misleading when it claims to be “the inside story” of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial that followed.
There are few, if any, behind-the-scenes revelations in Suspicion Nation. Anyone who followed the 2013 trial of shooter George Zimmerman will be familiar with Bloom’s account of the case. And in a divided United States, millions followed the story obsessively, joining competing pro-Trayvon and pro-Zimmerman Greek choruses on social media.
Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It
(Counterpoint; US: Mar 2014)
Bloom, a Los Angeles attorney, wrote two previous books, Swagger: 10 Urgent Rules for Raising Boys in an Era of Failing Schools, Mass Joblessness, and Thug Culture and Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed-Down World, which offered advice to harried parents and professional women. In Suspicion Nation, she unapologetically enters the fray on behalf of the hoodie-wearing teenager Martin and against Neighborhood Watch volunteer Zimmerman who shot him in February 2012 and said it was self-defense. Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury.
At its best, Suspicion Nation is a thorough evisceration of the amateurish job done by the Florida prosecutors who tried Zimmerman. At its worst, it’s like turning on the TV and listening to yet another annoying television pundit make sport of a human tragedy. Bloom is, in fact, a television pundit, as well as being the daughter of high-profile lawyer Gloria Allred.
Despite Suspicion Nation’s glib and talky writing style, her analysis of the Zimmerman prosecution’s many missteps is a compelling one.
What were those mistakes? For starters, the prosecutors failed to establish the “unreasonableness” of Zimmerman’s fears of Martin, Bloom writes. Shooting someone in self-defense is justifiable, according to Florida law, if one has a “reasonable” fear of death or serious bodily harm. Zimmerman misread the situation because he was overtly prejudiced and was fixated on black youths in his neighborhood, as established by several previous 911 calls, Bloom argues. Inexplicably, the prosecutor did not play those tapes for the jury, despite having won an earlier legal battle to do so.
The prosecution also failed to aggressively point out the contradictions in Zimmerman’s testimony about his confrontation with Martin and the shooting that followed, Bloom argues.
“Somehow, during the presentation of the evidence at Zimmerman’s trial, the prosecution was unaware of the vitally important fact that Zimmerman’s gun was holstered on his backside,” Bloom writes. Thus positioned, it was nearly impossible for Martin to have seen it (therefore disproving Zimmerman’s assertion that Martin was reaching for the weapon). Most critically, it would have made it impossible for Zimmerman to take the weapon out of his holster if he had been on his back, with Martin on top of him, as he told police.
Bloom writes that if the prosecution had conducted a re-enactment of Zimmerman’s version of events, he would have been unmasked as a “liar”.
In Suspicion Nation, Bloom also argues that two key prosecution witnesses (medical examiner Shiping Bao and Martin friend Rachel Jeantel) performed terribly in court because the prosecuting attorneys neglected to conduct any pre-trial preparation with them. The prosecutors also missed an opportunity to attack the credentials of a key defense expert, Dr. Vincent Di Maio, whose testimony on behalf of defendants had been vigorously and successfully picked apart in earlier criminal trials, including the Phil Spector case.
Unlike some pundits, Bloom does not believe that the prosecutors deliberately threw the case. Rather, she thinks they performed poorly because they didn’t believe they should prosecute Zimmerman in the first place and did so only after public outrage led Florida’s attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor. “Police and prosecutor had believed Zimmerman’s self-defense story, and neither the outside agitation nor the Special Prosecutor had changed their hearts and minds,” she writes. Their closing arguments, Bloom says, were a disorganized mess that convinced no one.
Unfortunately, Bloom takes some serious arguments and makes her own mash out of them. She opens her book with an interview she conducted of the juror who held out the strongest for a conviction — and inadvertently makes that juror look silly: “That juror’s complaints against her colleagues include, strangely, the fact that they hogged the television remote at the hotel and forced her to watch Game of Thrones.”
In her dissection of the prosecutors, Bloom uses hackneyed and downright silly writing devices. Among other things, she imagines herself as the prosecutor questioning key witnesses and writes long sections of imaginary testimony — most ending with Perry Mason-style “Ah ha!” moments.
Nor is she much interested in peering beneath the surface of the national soap opera at the personalities involved. The paranoid Zimmerman is surely worthy of a good character study (especially in light of his repeated post-acquittal arrests), but you won’t find out anything new about him here. Bloom considers Martin’s school disciplinary record in a long second section on racial profiling in American society. But she makes no effort to interview anyone who knew Martin and who might shed light on the real human being behind the liberal cause célèbre.
Suspicion Nation ends with a good if not entirely new discussion of the history of Americans’ obsession with self-defense. But the heart of her book is the encounter in the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes.
Bloom does a good job of telling us why the prosecutors failed to hold Zimmerman to account for his actions that rainy night. But supporters of Zimmerman will surely ignore its arguments. And those who felt Zimmerman was guilty will feel as if they’d been forced to watch the wall-to-wall television coverage unfold all over again — only to see the story reach the same perplexing ending.