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My Zimmerman-Martin Moment: On a vastly smaller media scale

18 July 2013

I am hypersensitive to legal/media cases like this because I was involved in one.

At 19, I was attacked, unprovoked, by a 23 year-old troublemaker who had three other run-ins that day. He also had been fired from his restaurant job after wrecking the kitchen.

He said he would kill me.  I did everything possible to avoid the fight.  I even bought him a drink.  (Mistake — this rewarded his bullying.)

There were many witnesses. He attacked me and I punched back and he died.  I believe the entire fight lasted about two seconds.  A witness said four.  I did not kick or hit him after he crumpled.  I left.  I was charged with 2nd Degree Murder and Assault with Intent to Murder and went to jail. My attorney said the only reason I faced charges was media pressure because I was a “Green Beret.”

I read all the witness statements and there was not a word against me.  All the statements — even from his own brother — were against him.  Later his mother was in the news, defending him as mothers can be expected, saying I killed her son because he made fun of my haircut. False and defamatory, but I said nothing.

From my book Danger Close:

“A year later, a newspaper article would quote an eyewitness who had seen the man: “He seemed crazed.” A young female acquaintance said that his behavior “scared me.” He had cut a swath of fear that day. His scraggly brown hair contrasted with our clean-cuts, maybe reinforcing the idea that we were easy prey. He was there with some friends and his younger brother who, according to later reports, had also felt his unfettered hostility that day, but they were peacefully occupying a table.”

In a scene straight from the movie Con-Air, I was off to jail.  Some folks later wondered if the movie was based on my case.    The charges were reduced to involuntary manslaughter and I was released but for six long months I faced the terrible specter of prison.  During that time I continued to train with Special Forces at Fort Bragg.  My charges derived from social pressure, such as we are seeing in the Zimmerman-Martin case.   My attorney was clear that if I had been a college student instead of a “Green Beret,” it is unlikely that I would have been charged because all the evidence was in my favor, including all the witnesses.  Unlike the Zimmerman case, there were eyewitnesses.  There was nothing whatsoever, not a shred of evidence, that I had committed murder, while there were buckets of evidence that it was self-defense.

Poorly researched, inflammatory words were damaging my life, just as they have done on a far greater scale with Mr. Zimmerman.  I know the feeling though Mr. Zimmerman has had it far worse.  For me it was partly, “Wow…the country I will fight for is flogging me due to social pressure.”  Zimmerman was trying to protect his neighborhood.

I remember well, and never trusted the media or prosecution in high profile cases since.  This was the first clear germ of my future writing career and why I take cases such as Zimmerman-Martin so seriously, realizing that once the media shines too bright a light, justice can be warped.  It can be especially warped by a mass hysteria that collectively forgets that we know how the story ends, but at the time, the defendant had no idea how it would end.  Some school-trained journalists to carry a baggage by trying to balance too many stories as if they are 50-50, as if there always are two sides to the story and both are equally valid, or characterizing an ongoing fight between people as a feud, when in fact one side simply is the aggressor but it looks like a feud.

In my upcoming book “The Bomb Boys,” there appeared to be a feud between two neighbor women.  One of the women moved across the country, and then came back with a pipe bomb and tried to blow up her neighbor but accidentally blew up herself.  She was insane and using meth.  But from the outside until that moment it looked like a feud.

This was true in my case, which naturally was characterized as a dispute, as if this was a 50-50 disagreement between two men who both willingly engaged in a fight.  Many people use shortcut thinking like “it takes two to tango.” Not true.  The tango is a dance that both wish to participate in.  I did not want to dance.  If I lost I could be dead, and if I won I would be kicked out of Special Forces, and I did not want to fight him to begin with.  There was nothing to gain by fighting a random crazy man.

Imagine how this played out.  “Newly minted Green Beret weapons specialist kills man in bar,” was the gist of it.  The reality was that during Special Forces training they warned us a hundred times not to get into any sort of trouble.  If you cannot control yourself downtown, there is no place for you in Special Forces. They were not looking for “Trouble Forces” but people who would rock steady.  I thought my time was over.

The man dropped from outer space into my life, forcing me into a problem solving mode.  I bought him a drink and that was an error, but I did not know that at the time.  Zimmerman got out of the car and we can fault him for that because we know the story ends with Martin shot.  Mr. Zimmerman did not know that at the time.

Often one party simply is the bad guy, and the man who killed him actually is the victim, and even if the victim made mistakes, he still is the victim who was pushed or pulled into making mistakes that if he had to do over, he would change.  But we only know that after we know how the story ends.

If you knew you were going to have a car wreck today, you would stay home.  Imagine being prosecuted, and the prosecutor demands, “Well why did you drive that day at all?”  Answer, “Do you think my eyes are crystal balls?”

If Zimmerman could replay those events, surely he would not have stepped out of the car, and I would not have bought my attacker a drink.  In retrospect and with more experience, I realize how dumb that was.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  Zimmerman probably has said the same to himself a thousand times.

The journalists, prosecutors and public have the advantage of knowing how the story ends, and they get to analyze it using 10% of the facts and a great deal of secondhand misinformation, all while their adrenaline is not pumping, and it is quiet and no lights are flashing, and they are not in fear for their lives. These cases become television soap operas where everyone seems like actors.  These are real people on the line.  I wish the best for Trayvon’s parents, and for Mr. Zimmerman.  Bad things happen to good people.

For the events in my case, please see the chapter with the fight:

Danger Close: Chapter One

Michael Yon

Michael Yon is America's most experienced combat correspondent. He has traveled or worked in 82 countries, including various wars and conflicts.

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