Phila. lawyer James Beasley files defamation suit on behalf of George Zimmerman against NBC, reporters
Philadelphia trial lawyer Jim Beasley is representing Florida resident George Zimmerman, the man charged with killing teenager Trayvon Martin, in a civil case initiated by Zimmerman against a news organization and three reporters over claims that the defendants doctored a 911 audio call Zimmerman had made on the night of the shooting to make Zimmerman appear racist. The lawsuit was filed Dec. 6 in the Circuit Court of the 18th Judicial Circuit in Seminole County, Florida. A copy of the complaint was posted on the Internet. It was signed by both Beasley, of The Beasley Firm in downtown Philadelphia, and Orlando lawyer Mark O’Mara, who is also representing Zimmerman in his criminal case. The defendants named in the civil action are NBC Universal Media LLC, along with reporter Ron Allen, and former reporters Lilia Rodriguez Luciano and Jeffrey Burnside. The lawsuit accuses the defendants of defaming Zimmerman in their reporting of the now-infamous Zimmerman-Martin shooting case that sparked nationwide discussion of everything from state gun and self-defense laws to the issue of racial profiling. The suit accuses the news outlet and its reporters of editing audio from the 911 call made by Zimmerman on the night of the fatal shooting in an effort to stir up ratings. “NBC saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as tragedy but as an opportunity to increase ratings, and so set about to create the myth that George Zimmerman was a racist and predatory villain,” the complaint reads. “Their goal was simple: keep their viewers alarmed, and thus always watching, by menacing them with a reprehensible series of imaginary and exaggerated racist claims.” The lawsuit claims that because of NBC’s “deceptive and exploitative manipulations,” members of the public wrongly believe that Zimmerman used a racial slur in his 911 call, that he suspected Martin was engaged in criminal activity because Martin was black, and that Zimmerman’s actions were motivated by racial stereotypes rather than out of concern for his safety and the safety of his neighbors. “NBC created this false and defamatory misimpression using the oldest form of yellow journalism: manipulating Zimmerman’s own words, splicing together disparate parts of the recording to create the illusion of statements that Zimmerman never actually made,” the lawsuit states. “To magnify the racial overtones of their scheme, in addition to manipulating the substance of the call, the Defendants highlighted Martin’s minority status while not mentioning Zimmerman’s, who is a Hispanic American, and by choosing misleading photos from years ago to identify Martin’s and Zimmerman’s appearances.” The lawsuit alleges that the doctored audio recording has Zimmerman saying the following to a 911 dispatcher: “There is a real suspicious guy. Ah, this guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something. He looks black.” Other versions of that edited audio were played on subsequent news programs, the suit alleges. The actual audio recording, however, has Zimmerman saying the following: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” At this point, the 911 operator asks, “OK, and this guy – is he white, black, or Hispanic?” It was then that Zimmerman responded, “He looks black,” according to the complaint. “The defendants knew when they created, broadcast, and rebroadcast the manipulated audio and the false statements about the recordings’ contents that the entire basis of their reporting was manifestly improper, a violation of journalistic ethics, and was certain to cause not just severe emotional distress to Zimmerman and damage to his reputation, but also threats to his life and calls for his criminal prosecution,” the lawsuit states. The suit goes on to say that to this day, the defendants have never apologized to Zimmerman for “deliberately portraying him as a hostile racist who targeted Martin due to his race; instead, NBC’s President Steve Capus, in a feeble attempt at damage control, falsely claimed this manipulated audio was merely a ‘mistake’ and ‘not deliberate.’” By that point, however, the damage was done, the suit asserts, and the public consciousness was fixed with the “indelible image of Zimmerman stalking Martin because ‘ he looks black.’” “Zimmerman has suffered greatly, with death threats, a bounty placed on his head, threats of capture, and a constant, genuine fear for his life resulting in his need to, among other things, live in hiding and wear a bullet proof vest,” the lawsuit claims. “Zimmerman was even dismissed from his college because the school felt the death threats were dangerous to fellow students.” Defendant Allen is listed in the suit as a reporter for NBC and who broadcast the “reckless reporting” from Sanford County to the nation via various NBC affiliates. Rodriguez Luciano, the suit says, was terminated from her reporting job at NBC as a result of her reporting on the Zimmerman-Martin story. Burnside, the final defendant, was also fired from his position as a result of his reporting on the case. The shooting of Martin, who was 17 years old at the time and unarmed, sparked nationwide discussion of Florida’s so-called “Stand-Your-Ground” law, which gives citizens who feel threatened with death or grave bodily harm wide latitude when it comes to firing a pistol in self-defense. Other states also have versions of this law including Pennsylvania, which eliminated the older “duty-to-retreat” provision when the state legislature expanded the commonwealth’s Castle Doctrine statute in 2011. The Zimmerman lawsuit contains counts of defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Zimmerman seeks judgment in excess of the Seminole County Circuit Court jurisdictional limit, together with interest, costs, and unspecified punitive damages. A copy of the complaint had been posted to the website GZvNBC.com, which says it is operated on behalf of Zimmerman by the O’Mara Law Group and The Beasley Firm.