Protesters gathered at the Criminal Justice Building in Sanford March 19. (Photo: Flickr.)

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Editor’s note: This item contains offensive language, which the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting believes is necessary to include in order to discuss accurately and fairly reports that George Zimmerman used a racial slur when he called 911.

With careful listening, and technically enhanced replays, it has become clearer that George Zimmerman uttered a racial slur during the 911 phone call in which he reported seeing a “suspicious … black male in his late teens” in his Sanford gated community — minutes before he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin dead.

One of the strongest indications comes from CNN, which asked an audio expert to closely examine a crucial 1.6 seconds of the recording.

In talking to a police dispatcher about the person he was watching on the night of Feb. 26, Zimmerman evidently muttered “fucking coons.”

The dialogue sounds like this:

Zimmerman: Shit, he’s running.

911: He’s running? Which way is he running?

Zimmerman: Down towards the other entrance of the neighborhood.

911: Which entrance is that that he’s heading towards?

Zimmerman: The back entrance. [pause] Fucking coons.

It was easy to miss the slur when the recordings were released last weekend. The words were mumbled and obscured by background noise, and easily taken for a heavy breath. What stood out, on first listen, was Zimmerman describing “a real suspicious guy” who “looks like he’s up to no good,” and adding, “These assholes, they always get away.” Also commanding attention was the dispatcher’s telling Zimmerman not to follow the man.

But after The Young Turks played tapes on the Internet video show on Monday, listeners contacted them to say, “You missed something.” Host Cent Uygur credited his viewers for the catch: “You put up anything on YouTube, they will dissect it, second by second.”

On Tuesday, the show followed up with a segment strongly suggesting the mumbled sounds were the words “fucking coons.”  The angle gained traction when blogger ZappoDave on the Daily Kos also began writing about it on Tuesday, and cable TV talk shows soon began broaching the subject.

Last night on MSNBC, Jasmine Rand, an attorney for the Martin family, said that the words were not audible on the version of the tapes that Sanford police provided to the family. “So at this time, until the family can verify that that was an official version from the Sanford Police Department, the family cannot stand by those terms,” Rand said.

But the words do appear to be present on the tapes released over the weekend and published Monday by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. They can be heard, however indistinctly, at the 2:21 mark of Zimmerman’s 911 call:

If Zimmerman indeed made the racist remark, the legal consequences could be severe. As legal writer Jeffrey Toobin pointed out, homicide is not a federal crime. But a homicide motivated by racial animus — that is a federal hate crime, and it could result in very serious charges (listen here at the 4:40 mark).

This twist in the case is another example of the power of Internet media — blogs, Twitter, YouTube — to bring an important story to light and to do the work that was once almost exclusively the province of journalists. It was a blogger for the Huffington Post, Trymaine Lee, whose repeated reports on the case beginning March 8 pushed the story into public consciousness. Now it’s followers of an obscure news show seen on YouTube who uncovered what appears to be a crucial element in the events leading to the death of a black teenager who was simply walking to his father’s house after a stroll to the local 7-Eleven.