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For Zimmerman witnesses, TV entertainment yielded to shock of real-life drama

SANFORD — While George Zimmerman was watching the neighborhood, his neighbors were watching television. Watching, behind the gates of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, behind locked doors, their faces bathed in the hi-def glow of a Sunday evening in America.

During the first week of the trial of State of Florida vs. George Zimmerman, nearly every Retreat resident who has testified about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has been asked to recount his or her activities that evening. And nearly every witness has reported that he or she was parked in front of the boob tube when real life — conflict, yelping, a gunshot — interrupted programming.

Press mute. Listen.

Did you hear that?

Of course they were, because that's what Sunday night has become, the paralyzed presleep void between weekend and work. Watching Sunday night TV delays the coming of Monday, and has become one of the most-watched evenings in television. Executives have started stacking Sundays with high-quality programming like Mad Men, Girls and Game of Thrones, but it's also the night for Family Guy and America's Funniest Home Videos. It's the Vegas buffet of television, so stuffed it prompted trend stories last year in the New York Times and Adweek, asking, essentially: How much is too much?

On Feb. 26, 2012, Oscars Red Carpet Live was on ABC, before the Academy Awards; 60 Minutes was on CBS; NBC was airing Dateline; ESPN's SportsCenter was broadcasting from Daytona Beach, where the Daytona 500 had been delayed by the Florida rains.

It was 7:11 p.m., before The Simpsons, Amazing Race and Hillbilly Handfishin', when Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department to report that he saw a man who looked "real suspicious" walking outside. We now know the pedestrian was Trayvon Martin, 17, who had his own date with television: the NBA All-Star Game on TNT, at the nearby home of his father's fiancee.

Martin, himself, was taking a break from television. His young friend Chad Johnson, now 15, told the court the two had been watching TV and playing video games before Martin took off on foot for the 7-Eleven to get a drink and candy. He was talking on his cellphone to a friend in Miami, who would later question police procedure because Sanford police didn't do what detectives do on A&E's The First 48.

Zimmerman saw Martin on his way back home, when Martin paused under the central mailbox kiosk near the clubhouse, where nine security cameras recorded every movement. Zimmerman has not testified about precisely why Martin drew his suspicions.

"This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman told the dispatcher. "It's raining and he's just walking around, looking about."

In 1951, Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called The Pedestrian, set in 2053. An out-of-work writer (because no one reads anymore) goes on a nighttime walk and notices the windows of every neighboring cottage lit only by the lights of the television sets. A police car stops before him.

"What are you doing out?"

"Walking," the writer says.

"Walking where? For what?"

"Walking for air," he says. "Walking to see."

The writer is arrested and taken to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.

"These a-------," Zimmerman said to the emergency dispatcher on the phone, as Martin continues walking. "They always get away."

Zimmerman hung up with the dispatcher. Martin lost the call with his friend.

In the time it takes for a commercial break, Zimmerman followed Martin and the two met between rows of homes with windows lit by TV sets, a violent human collision in the shadows. Someone began to holler, a sound so real it cut through the synthetic drama inside.

Jonathan Good muted his television and looked through the blinds. Jeannee Manalo, watching TV with her daughter and husband, heard a "howling" sound and walked to the sliding glass door. Jennifer Lauer, sitting on the love seat and watching a recorded episode of Celebrity Apprentice with her husband, heard voices outside and pushed mute, and then heard "scuffling."

Jane Surdyka, who had been waiting for her British program to start, called 911 to report something real, something beyond her television set. She began to cry into the phone.

"It's almost like this is a movie," she said.

They all looked into the darkness and each of them saw something different.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

For Zimmerman witnesses, TV entertainment yielded to shock of real-life drama 06/30/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 2, 2013 11:57am]
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