LAKE MARY, Fla. — Whether they think that he got away with murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin or that he was just a brave neighborhood watch volunteer “standing his ground,” many Americans can’t seem to get enough of George Zimmerman. And he can’t seem to stop giving it to them.
So it’s hardly surprising that everything Zimmerman does produces a Twitterverse explosion and spins out into heavy news coverage. Comedian Deon Cole nailed it during an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” a couple of days after the July 13 verdict. Merely being found not guilty, he said of Zimmerman, “doesn’t mean that you’re a free man.”
He certainly hasn’t been free from the spotlight.
—Two stops for speeding.
—A cellphone photo of a smiling Zimmerman touring the Florida factory where the 9 mm semi-automatic pistol used in the February 2012 shooting was made.
—And, this week, police dash-cam footage of Zimmerman kneeling in the street to be cuffed after an alleged scuffle with his estranged wife and father-in-law.
Like gangster Al Capone going to Alcatraz for tax evasion and O.J. Simpson serving time for robbing some sports memorabilia dealers, some interpret this series of unfortunate events as part of some cosmic comeuppance for a wannabe cop.
But is he a kind of George Ziggy-man, perpetually stalked by storm clouds, or more like one of those California wildfires, creating his own weather patterns?
Seems like a little bit of both, according to crisis management expert Mark McClennan.
“How does he keep resetting his 15 minutes of fame?” said the Boston-area consultant, who’s on the Public Relations Society of America’s board of directors. “I’d say it’s a two-way street.”
Granted, Zimmerman didn’t expect his visit to the Kel-Tec CNC Industries factory in Cocoa, Fla., to be a public event. Zimmerman has turned down all Associated Press interview requests since his trial, and his lawyers didn’t respond to messages about this story. But Shawn Vincent, a spokesman for the law firm that defended Zimmerman, told Yahoo News of the factory visit: “That was not part of our public relations plan.”
But McClennan wasn’t surprised when TMZ published a photo of Zimmerman shaking hands with a Kel-Tec employee — and Zimmerman shouldn’t have been, either.
“Instead of being a 24-hour news cycle, it’s now a 24-second news cycle for anything to spring up,” said McClennan, a senior vice president at Schwartz MSL. “You need to be careful of what you’re doing. … And if there’s anything you do that is newsworthy or interesting, people are going to write about it, talk about it, share about it, tweet it, put it on YouTube — because it’s going to drive clicks, drive interest, and it’s going to spread virally.”
It’s not just his public outings and repeated brushes with the legal system that have kept Zimmerman in the spotlight. Martin’s parents were prominent participants in last month’s 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington, and several civil rights leaders have called for the repeal of “stand-your-ground” laws, which generally remove a person’s duty to retreat if possible in the face of danger.
Even when he helped extricate a family from an overturned SUV in July, Zimmerman couldn’t catch a break.
The grateful couple canceled a news conference, defense attorney Mark O’Mara said, “for the possibility of blowback against them.” People immediately suggested the incident was staged — or at least poked fun at the timing.
“Let’s get this straight,” Nigel Stevens wrote on the site www.opposingviews.com. “Zimmerman, in his only documented venture into the real world, heroically transforms into Volunteer Paramedic and rescues someone from deadly circumstances. Is this really happening? Aaron Sorkin and Steven Spielberg couldn’t have collaborated to come up with that ending. “
Stevens — after dubbing Zimmerman “the most vilified man in America” — went on to suggest the next acts on the watchman’s “Karmic Redemption Tour”: Providing emergency childbirth assistance to Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton, balancing Detroit’s budget and capturing NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
Zimmerman certainly has his supporters. Several groups launched petition drives urging the Department of Justice not to pursue federal civil rights charges against him.
“The jury has spoken and found that the prosecution failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that George Zimmerman had malice or racism in his heart or even a reckless disregard for Trayvon Martin’s life when he shot the teenager,” declared a petition on dickmorris.rallycongress.com. “The Justice Department should now butt out.”
But the trial seems to have set in motion some forces that are beyond Zimmerman’s control.
In late August, Shellie Zimmerman pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor perjury charge for lying during a bail hearing after her husband’s arrest. Last week, she filed for divorce, and felt compelled to tell the world about it. On ABC’s “Good Morning America,” she called her husband “selfish” and accused him of leaving her with “a bunch of pieces of broken glass” after the acquittal.
Zimmerman blames the trial for the implosion of his marriage, lawyers have said. His wife’s attorney, Kelly Sims, said the couple have been on a “Tower of Terror” — an apparent reference to the harrowing, “Twilight Zone”-themed ride at nearby Walt Disney World — since the shooting and had spent only a few days together before the divorce filing.
But was it wise for Zimmerman to go to the home Monday and take photos while his wife and her family were there gathering belongings?
O’Mara said Zimmerman needs to be a lot more “circumspect” about what he does, since every action is “hyper-focused on and scrutinized.”
“I understand they’re not private individuals anymore — never by their own doing,” said O’Mara, who continues to handle Zimmerman’s defamation lawsuit against NBC but does not intend to represent him if any charges result from this investigation. “Now, with everything that has happened in the past year and a half, it would be very nice if we could let them separate and divorce as they need to in two separate paths because they’ve decided they can’t live together.”
Zimmerman may be his own worst enemy. Defense attorney Barry Scheck notes that trouble often simply begets more trouble.
“The pressure from the situation often adds an additional distortion to their behavior,” said Scheck, a co-director of the Innocence Project, and part of the “dream team” that helped win Simpson’s acquittal on charges of killing his ex-wife and a friend. “So it’s a very difficult situation, and I think the people that have been most successful with it are the ones that have a clear sense of what they’re about and just stick to it.”
McClennan insists that no reputation — not even Zimmerman’s — is “irreparably beyond repair.”
“In crisis management … once you resolve the fundamental issues, you go into purgatory for a while, where you start building it again and you start making the positives,” he said. “But any one misstep can bring it right back to the beginning again, and you’ve got to start building all over again.”
Purgatory, at least in Catholic theology, suggests a temporary expiation on the way to a state of grace. Dr. Patrick Williams, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Institute for Life Coach Training, isn’t so sure Zimmerman is heading in that direction.
Watching Zimmerman leading up to the trial, Williams said he saw “somebody who thought he did the community a favor, you know. Like he was some hero.”
Williams said Zimmerman could certainly use some guidance, but the doctor doesn’t see him “as a coachable person” as long as he keeps repeating the same old patterns.
“You know, the biggest predictor of your future is your past,” he said. “If he doesn’t get charged on this case, there’ll be something else. I think people kind of create their reality. And I’m not sure he’s learned to make good choices.”
Martin’s parents have declined to weigh in on Zimmerman’s continuing legal troubles and what it all means. But their attorney, Benjamin Crump, noted that they “have always leaned on their faith through this whole ordeal.
“And they’ve always said that the killer of their unarmed child would have to answer to a higher authority.”
Allen Breed reported from Raleigh, N.C.