And the Post extends a script: Did George Zimmerman commit a crime when he killed Trayvon Martin? Should he have been charged as he was, with second-degree murder?
The facts are emerging in dribs and drabs, and so we can’t really tell you. But plainly, major journalistic scams have been staged concerning this tragic case.
This worst offender has been MSNBC; more on their horrible conduct tomorrow. But on Sunday, the Washington Post extended a preferred point of view with a very strange, very lengthy, highly speculative front-page report.
In the Post’s front-page report, Stephanie McCrummen told us what two “audio experts” have said about the tape of the 911 call on which the fatal gunshot is heard. One of the “experts” is Alan R. Reich, “a former University of Washington professor with a doctorate in speech science”—and an active imagination.
Or maybe not! Everything's possible, of course. It may be that Reich is right about what he hears on the tape.
That said, “audio experts” have already failed, in major ways, in an earlier part of this case. But this didn’t stop the Post from publishing a highly speculative report in which Zimmerman turns out to be guilty again, with McCrummen engaging in some slightly comical pseudo-journalism.
What does Reich think he hears on the tape? You can read McCrummen’s full report for yourself. But this is the point where McCrummen semi-comically describes Reich’s basic conclusion:
MCCRUMMEN (5/20/12): The analysis does not discount the possibility that there was a physical struggle between Martin, who had an abrasion on his left ring finger, and Zimmerman, who had a one-inch laceration in the back of his head, an abrasion on his forehead and a bloody, fractured nose, according to newly released photos and police and medical reports.Who knows? It’s possible that Reich is right—that the “help cries” all came from Martin. But note the rather comical writing at the start of this passage:
Rather, Reich’s analysis suggests that whatever physical struggle occurred was over by the time the recorded 911 call began.
From that point until the gunshot 45 seconds later, Reich said, it is Zimmerman who seems to have the upper hand, not Martin.
“It is Trayvon who felt threatened,” Reich said. “The help cries are all Trayvon.”
It’s possible there was a physical struggle between Zimmerman and Martin? As McCrummen notes, Zimmerman emerged with a fractured nose, with lacerations and abrasions on the back of his head. Unless he just walks around with a fractured nose as a matter of course, it does seem fairly obvious that a struggle occurred this night. And of course, the one eyewitness with a very good view told police that he saw such a fight—with Martin on top, punching Zimmerman “MMA style.”
This is also what Zimmerman said.
This evidence makes it seem somewhat odd when Reich determines that Zimmerman “seemed to have the upper hand” in the last 45 seconds. Meanwhile, how did Reich manage to figure this out? In one especially worrisome graphic, McCrummen explains his expert procedures:
MCCRUMMEN: Reich relies heavily on critical listening when examining evidence tapes. Reich amplified this 394-millisecond portion of the audio using computer software. After listening to the segment several hundred times, he perceived the ‘a’ phoneme—a linguistic part of a spoken word—pronounced by the ‘o’ vowel (which sounds like the ‘a’ in father.)Reich could be right in his judgments, of course. He could be right that someone was yelling “stop,” not “help.”
Reich writes, “When interactively scaled up or amplified by a 10x factor, the word appears to be “stop,” not “help” as previously perceived by listeners.
That said, would you be willing to send someone to jail based on phonemes that can only be perceived “after listening to the segment several hundred times?” Given the way other “audio experts” have failed, we would be disinclined to base a judgment on such tortured deductions.
But beyond that: On a journalistic basis, we wouldn’t build a sprawling front-page Sunday report around such tortured technical claims—a Sunday report in which Reich was allowed to say that Zimmerman was in command at the moment Martin was shot.
In fairness, McCrummen balances Reich’s presentation with the views of another expert—James J. Ryan, “retired head of the FBI forensic audio, video and image analysis unit.” But uh-oh! Ryan says Reich’s claims are bunk—that you simply can’t tell what’s going on from this degraded tape!
Having heard this, a sensible newspaper wouldn’t publish a sprawling report which points the finger of blame at someone in an ongoing murder case. But the Washington Post isn’t such a newspaper. It published Reich’s claims anyhoo.
Reich could be right in his judgments, of course. But what if his “expert judgment” is wrong, as all those other “experts” were?
What if that FBI expert is right? What is Reich is just hearing things?
Finally, how thoroughly is McCrummen wed to anti-Zimmerman narratives? Consider the ridiculous speculation she offers near the end of her piece. As you read the highlighted passage, please note the dog that wasn’t allowed to bark:
MCCRUMMEN: All of which leaves the question of how you hear the 45 seconds [of the 911 tape] when you can't hear the 45 seconds, when the context is conflicting and subjective and emotionally charged, when there is an expert such as Reich arguing with certainty about what can be discerned and another such as Ryan claiming that little can be discerned at all.Truly, that is astounding. McCrummen imagines two possibilities. The jury might decide that Martin was screaming for help. Or they might decide that they can’t tell—that the tape is ambiguous.
Ultimately, the only answer to that question that will really matter, if the case goes to trial, is the jury's. How it hears the 45 seconds, said Stephen A. Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University, will depend partly on the machinations and strategies deployed during the trial.
If the prosecution can convince jurors that Martin is screaming for help on the recording, it could become "enormously powerful," Saltzburg said.
If the defense can convince them that the recording is ambiguous, it will help Zimmerman.
In either case, Saltzburg said, what the jurors hear will depend on human nature.
McCrummen doesn’t list the third possibility. Obviously, a jury might decide that Zimmerman was screaming for help, as he said. This is an obvious third possibility, one that fits a good deal of the evidence. But McCrummen can’t bring herself to type this third possibility!
Especially given the earlier failures of “audio experts,” we think the Post showed very poor judgment when it built a sprawling front-page report around these “expert” speculations. But could that be Zimmerman screaming for help?
We don’t know who was screaming that night. But McCrummen couldn’t bring herself to type an unwelcome idea.