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A bullet through the heart

Posted: July 8, 2013 3:45 p.m.
Updated: July 10, 2013 5:00 a.m.

WASHINGTON -- In the annals of murder trials, few testimonies can rival the impact of slain teenager Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton: “I heard my son screaming.”

She was referring to the voice on an audio recording of a 911 call that has been at the center of the prosecution’s case against George Zimmerman, accused of fatally shooting Martin during a scuffle.

If the voice heard screaming in the background belonged to the dead teen, as the prosecution claims, then it is less easy to believe that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, as he claims.

If the voice belongs to Zimmerman, then one might conclude that he felt sufficiently threatened to squeeze the trigger. Zimmerman, 29, was acting as a volunteer neighborhood watchman the night he shot Martin, 17, whom he has described as acting suspiciously.

Most of this story is familiar to anyone with access to a television, computer or newspaper, so I won’t repeat the history here. Instead, I turn your attention to a surprise witness Friday who may prove to be the most powerful of all: maternal instinct.

This instinct was most vivid in the person of Martin’s mother, obviously, but the witness I refer to is both more amorphous and exponentially more powerful. It is the combined, maternal synchrony of the jurors -- all six of them women, five of them mothers. Each must have felt an involuntary pang when Fulton uttered those five words.

They will have to judge those words by their own instincts, without benefit of expert analysis, which the judge has ruled inadmissible. They’ll have to decide whether the accused or the mother is right: Was the person in distress Zimmerman or Martin?

The answer likely will be the most probative piece of evidence in the trial despite the fact that there can be no certainty. The truth, to the extent it can be surmised, may well hinge on the thing mothers know that can’t be known. It isn’t a gut feeling; it’s primal, deep-brain and fiercer than mere logic.

Second-guessers have an array of questions to entertain: Would a mother lie about such a thing? Could she? Would she wish another man convicted on the basis of her sense of things? Can she know with certainty that the voice in the background, barely audible, is that of her son and not of the other man?

The last question is most compelling. Can she?

Most mothers know the sound of their own child’s cry from the moment of birth. From personal experience, I can vouch for the strange ability to discern one’s own from all others. If my baby was crying in the hospital nursery, I was halfway down the hall to retrieve him before I realized I’d left the bed.

Does this sort of attunement last through time? Logic suggests that as a child’s dependency decreases, so does the acuteness of a mother’s instinctive responses. But experience tells us that the mother-child bond does not diminish with time. Every dead soldier is still his mother’s baby.

Would a mother recognize her son’s cry for help on a recording? It is possible to believe so, while also possible not to believe so. Zimmerman’s father testified that the voice belonged to his son.

Recordings often distort voices; other noises interfere. Further complicating are the unconscious desires or needs of the listener. A mother needs to believe that whatever harm came to her son was not his fault.

In fact, it was when defense attorney Mark O’Mara suggested that Fulton might have hoped to hear her son’s voice that she uttered those five words and said, “I didn’t hope for anything. I just simply listened to the tape.”

Trayvon Martin was undoubtedly a beloved son who didn’t deserve to die. He was unarmed, on his way home from a convenience store. Did he attack George Zimmerman? Was Zimmerman so mortally afraid that he had no choice but to shoot the 158-pound Martin in the heart?

No one envies the terrible decision these jurors must make. Matters were made worse Friday when medical examiner Shiping Bao testified that Martin likely lived another one to 10 minutes and opined that he suffered and was in pain. Another pang.

Maternal instinct may not be a reliable witness, but in the absence of verifiable truth, she/it may prove to be the bullet through the heart of this case.

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