In exclusive coverage for the Chicago Defender, Dr. Jason Johnson is reporting from the courthouse in Sanford, Fla., where George Zimmerman is on trial for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Johnson will provide exclusive and intimate details of the trial through it’s conclusion. Check back here for coverage you canonly get at the chicagodefender.com
Can a college transcript tell what type of person you turn out to be? Most Americans would say no. The vast majority of us don’t believe that what we studied in college has much to do with where we’ve ended up in life (and the millions of psychology, sociology and biology majors out there working in insurance, human resources and marketing are all nodding their heads in agreement). The strongest connection that most people draw between their undergraduate degrees and real life, occurs when they answer an obscure question on “Jeopardy.” However, in the case of the State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman, college grades make a difference, and how those grades are viewed could be a matter of life and death.
Once a trial date was set for George Zimmerman, his legal team began telling the public exactly who they thought Trayvon Martin was, and they used whatever means were available to them to do so. Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, requested information about Trayvon’s grades and records from Dr. Michael M. Krop High-School. Along the same lines, state prosecutors ‘accidentally’ released George’s Zimmerman’s transcripts from Seminole State Community College during pre-trial motions, leading to a flurry of complaints by the defense. The school records of both the man and the boy in this case could prove compelling to a jury of 6 women, 5 of whom have children.
Trayvon was an average student… not on academic probation, but not charging his way towards the National Honor Society either. His in classroom behavior was by all accounts non-remarkable, but it was his out of classroom activities; truancy, graffiti and the like, that landed him multiple suspensions. Zimmerman, on the other hand was anything but an average student at Seminole State Community College According to the Miami Herald:
Zimmerman got D’s in Introduction to Criminal Justice and Juvenile Delinquency, and a C in a course called Evil Minds -Violent Predators. He failed algebra and astronomy and was placed on academic probation in 2011.
At one point, his grade-point average dropped to a .5. His A’s in English, criminal litigation and a Marriage and Family class boosted his overall G.P.A. to 2.3.
In late 2011, he was declined an associate’s degree because he had failed a class and did not have the credits to graduate.
Unlike most college professors, I am not inclined to overstate the importance of classroom grades to someone’s overall character, but in the case of Zimmeran and Martin, I think their grades are telling. How an individual handles the lessons and information in a structured and safe school environment can be applicable to a real world situation, if the circumstances are right. If you studied nutrition in college and are morbidly obese, that’s got to raise questions. If you studied service and hospitality in college and talk to your employees like Paula Deen, there’s obviously a disconnect. When what you are supposed to have learned in school applies to a real world situation, it is fair to compare your grades to how you actually fare in a real life test.
Trayvon Martin was neither a juvenile delinquent nor a choir boy. However, by all accounts his bad behavior happened outside of class. There are no reports that he was disrespectful to teachers or other classmates within the school environment. However, Trayvon’s ability to conjugate verbs and determine perpendicular angles, has little or no bearing on the night of the shooting. Zimmerman’s however, might be the difference in this case.
During opening statements in the Zimmerman trial, both the prosecutors and the defense attorney’s suggested that George Zimmerman’s classes in criminal justice were key to his behavior that night. The prosecutors pointed out that George Zimmerman should have known various ways to properly identify a potential threat and follow the directions of a 911 dispatcher. The defense noted that Zimmerman’s class training was on full display that night, and that he dealt with Trayvon according to the letter of the law in criminal justice and self-defense.
Both of these lines of argument struck me as strange, given they drew upon classes that Zimmerman was performing poorly in academically. Lousy grades in classes like Evil Minds and Juvenile Delinquency, potentially paint a picture of a man who couldn’t identify a dangerous person in the classroom; why would he fare any better on a dark and rainy night when he already had a gun in hand? Moreover, why would a man who was studying to be an officer of the law, ignore requests from police to stay in his car? Shouldn’t a Criminal Justice student have known better? On the other hand, some legal analysts have suggested that Zimmerman’s transcript is actually a boon to the defense. One of George Zimmerman’s few high marks in school was in his litigation course. While Zimmerman’ may not know how to spot a troubled teen, he may know a thing or two about how to construct a defensible narrative on the spot. The only problem might be if the empirical evidence doesn’t end up matching the story that he told police.
No one piece of evidence in this trial, whether it’s bloody photos of George Zimmerman, Trayvon screaming help on a 911 call, or even college transcripts will determine the final verdict. However, the grades of the two people involved, especially George Zimmerman, might go a long way in revealing personal character, something that both sides are fighting desperately to establish. Was George Zimmerman a bumbling Paul Blart or Otis just trying to do his job as neighborhood watch captain ? Or was he something more sinister, a wanna-be tough guy with a gun and an inferiority complex, looking to play hero? Eventually we’ll know the truth, but this is one case where what was learned in class is actually relevant to the real world. The only question is which classes count more when the jury finally hands out a final grade.
Note: The spokesperson for the Zimmerman legal team was reached out to repeatedly for this article but they did not respond by the time it was written.
Dr. Jason Johnson is a professor of Political Science at Hiram College in Ohio. He is the author of Political Consultants and Campaigns: One Day to Sell and works as an analyst for Al Jazeera English. You can follow him via twitter @Drjasonjohnson