Orlando Sentinel bases story on faulty info in police report, refuses to make correction.
As I noted in the previous entry, unwinding the mysteries of the Martin/Zimmerman encounter is not a simple matter. The unresolved questions mainly come down to matters of time and space: who was where when, exactly. However the inquiries of both the press and law enforcement officials (at least those that have been made public) only look into two ‘W’s: Who and What. Where and When are almost totally absent. As we’ll see in looking closer at the physical evidence, a few seconds one way or the other can mean an awful lot. That’s why the seemingly trivial matter below isn’t trivial at all.
On May 21, 2012, the Orlando Sentinel published a story on their website titled “Sanford police prepare down-to-the-second George Zimmerman timeline.” The only problem is that the timeline, taken from page 6 of Chris Serino’s report that was part of the 184 page document dump, is utterly wrong, and the material needed to prepare an accurate timeline has been available to the public for months. The story reads:
In a timeline included in evidence documents released last week, Sanford police spelled out down to the second, what happened the night George Zimmerman fatally shot Trayvon Martin, based on time-stamped calls to their dispatch center.
It shows Zimmerman fired 1 minute, 57 seconds after he hung up.
*1911:12 – Call received from George Zimmerman reporting suspicious person
1913:19 – Zimmerman relays that suspicious person is running from him
1913:36 – Dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following suspicious person
1913:36 – Dispatcher advises Zimmerman “Okay; we don’t need you to do that”
1915:23 – Approximate time call with Zimmerman ends
1916:43 – 911 call placed by (blacked out name) where Zimmerman is heard screaming for help
1917:20 – Shot fired; screams from Zimmerman cease
1917:40 – Officer T. Smith arrives on scene
1919:43 – Officer T. Smith locates and places Zimmerman in custody.
*The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, which handled the call, reported it came in at 1909:34.
Source: The office of Special Prosecutor Angela Corey from the Report of Investigation prepared by Sanford police Investigator Chris Serino.
This is actually a revised version of the story. The original did not have the asterisk and footnote. Here’s the actual call log:
As you can see, in the upper left corner, the call connected at 19:09:34. The LOG does not begin until the operator types something in and hits, ‘Enter’ creating the first log entry. So the call comes in at 19:09:34, the operator listen until Zimmerman finishes explaining the purpose of his call, then he types a summary remark, and enter it, generating the first log entry at 19:11:12 — which can’t be the beginning of the call because it already notes things it took Zimmerman a certain amount of time to say.
So, the timeline in Serino’s report, just one of many examples of face-palm level incompetence on the part of investigators in this case, was generated by taking 19:11:12 as the start time, measuring the elapsed time into the call of “he’s running,” “are you following him” and the hang-up, and then adding them to the (erroneous) start time of 19:11:12. You can hear the call, and see a clock synced to it’s actual connection time in this YouTube video. For proof of the error in the Serino report timeline, look at the entry “SUBJ NOW RUNNING TOWARDS BACK ENTRANCE OF COMPLEX” in the actual log, entered at 19:11:59. If the call started at 19:09:34, then Zimmerman first used the descriptor “back” at 19:11:51. It makes sense then it takes the operator 8 seconds to type that sentence and hit “return.” However, if the call began at 19:11:12, then Zimmerman didn’t use the word “back” until 19:13:29, but somehow the police operator manages to type in a computer-time-stamped record of that report a minute and a half before it happens!
But the problems in the Serino timeline don’t stop with Zimmerman’s call. It says the 911 call that recorded the gunshot was placed at 1916:43. However, on March 20, the website of Orlando CBS affiliate WKMG ran a story that stated: “Records show Zimmerman’s first call to authorities was at 7:09:34 p.m., followed by seven witness calls at 7:16:11, 7:16:41, 7:17:06, 7:17:15, 7:17:54, 7:18:00 and 7:19:04.” I have not been able to find an official document that conforms these times, but also nothing that refutes them. These times are also consistent with the content of the 911 calls, lining up the events reported between them. Given that mistaking the first log entry for the start time results in a 1 minute 38 second error, the same sort of error could easily account for the 32 second difference between the start time of the first 911 call as reported by WKMG and a first log entry of 19:16:43. (It takes just under 32 seconds for the operator to get the name and address of the caller and confirm the caller is reporting screams of ‘Help” coming from her back yard.) So the middle part of Serino’s timeline is almost certainly off as well. (If the first 911 call connected at 19:16:11, then the shot was fired at 19:16:55, not 19:17:20.)
And then there are the last two entries in Serino’s timeline, which do seem to reveal an important truth. On the first page of the “Twin Lakes Shooting Initial Report” released back in March, it indicates “Time Arrived: 19:17.” But a careful reading of Ofc. Timothy Smith’s narrative reveals that this is the time his sqaud car pulled into The Retreat at Twin Lakes, and it took him some time to find the actual spot of the shooting. Yet media account after media account says ‘the police arrived at 7:17′, implying that this was the moment an officer reached the site of the shooting, not the general area. All of the 911 calls that report the arrival of a police officer, synched to their most logical start times among the choices listed by WKMG, place Smith as actually getting to backyard of 1221 Twin Trees Lane at approximately 19:19. They also indicate that Zimmerman surrenders to Smith immediately upon Smith’s arrival, a process which would logically complete around 19:19:43.
So here Serino has an opportunity to add clarity to his report and dispell a misconception by writing, “1917:40 – Officer T. Smith arrives at The Retreat at Twin Lakes.” But he doesn’t. What’s worse is that the Sentinal’s, Rene Stutzman, whose byline appears under the story and is the paper’s lead reporter on the Martin case, doesn’t look at the two times listed and go, ‘Hmm. If Smith gets to the crime scene at 7:17, how does it take him over 2 minutes to find and cuff Zimmerman, who is standing right there?’ All she would need to do is make one quick phone call to clarify that part of the timeline, and assure the accuracy of that part of her story. But she doesn’t.
ANYWAY, on May 23 I wrote an email addressed to Stutzman and each of her editors up the line explaining all this, in which I said:
The Sentinal now has the MINIMAL journalistic responsibility of running a story that:
1) reveals the 1:38 error regarding Zimerman’s call in Serino’s report.
2) double-checks the times the 911 calls were received by a review of the actual log documents, and reveals the apparent error in the gunshot timing if the previously published 911 call start times are accurate.
And this reponsibility extends to presenting the updated facts in at least as prominent a manner as the original piece on the ‘timeline’ was offered.
I also added:
The public would be well-served by a clarification that the police did not arrive at the actual site of the shooting at 19:17, but rather closer to 19:20 if we’re rounding to the nearest minute, or 19:19:43 if we’re being precise.
On May 24, I actually received a response from Michelle Guido, the breaking news editor at the Sentinel:
I will say that this was a document released in the discovery process last week, and we did attribute the information to public records.
Also, there is an asterisk in the story that points out what you’re saying:
*The Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, which handled the call, reported it came in at 1909:34.
It’s possible that you didn’t see that at the end of the story, or that you read a VERY early version of the story that did not have the note at the bottom. But I know that we added that as soon as we connected the dots you are referring to.
Here’s the URL:
Hope that helps,
So that’s their defense of spreading mis-information: they attributed it, and they added an asterisk without explaining anything about the significance of the footnote. I call ‘BS’. So on May 24, I wrote back to Ms. Guido, again CC’ing everyone in the editorial chain.
However, I do not think the asterisk and the attribution meet the minimal standards of journalist responsibility and ethics. For one they do not address the apparent error in the timing of the gunshot, which is not related to Mr. Zimmerman’s police call. And they certainly don’t address the misconceptions about the 19:17 arrival time.
At this point, you have clear evidence of a significant factual error in Mr. Serino’s report. Where there is one, there may be more. There are a variety of gaps (and I am not referring to the redactions) and inconsistencies in the released documents, which point at the least to shoddy police work, but further suggest a possible cover-up of procedural regularities. Such covering-up may be minor, or not, but how is the public to know if the press does not inquire? …
…Regardless, I reassert that an asterisk is a ridiculously weak attempt to present crucial KNOWN facts, the overall thrust of the story remains irresponsibly misleading, and by any genuine ethical standard I can imagine, The Sentinal owes the public a proper clarification.
And then, (I bet you guessed it)… I have heard nothing back from The Sentinal, and the story is still up there, with the asterisk, and no further amedendation.
Now, why does this matter, again? Because the State of Florida has filed an official document assigning times to events that are provably wrong. If the State enters this into evidence at any legal proceeding, it may well bias the case in one direction or another. If nothing else, it allows the Defense an opportunity to undermine the credibility of the prosecution. Call me old fashioned, but I think the press has a duty to ask clarifying questions about facts, and not just pass on “well this is what so-and-said” as if mere attribution absolves them from all responsibility in choosing which bits to pass on, how to present them, what prominence to give them among the occurances of the day, and absolves them of all responsibility from verifying the facticity of what they choose to pass on.