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Zimmerman Sues NBC Over 'Doctored' Audio of 911 Call
The Legal Intelligencer
George Zimmerman, the Florida man charged with killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, has sued NBCUniversal Media LLC and three of its current and former reporters for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, claiming they edited audio and misreported the content of his 911 call in an attempt to paint him as "a racist and predatory villain."
A clerk in the Circuit Court of the 18th Judicial Circuit in and for Seminole County, Fla., confirmed to The Legal on Thursday that the suit had been filed and provided the docket number "2012CA006178."
Zimmerman is currently awaiting trial, having pled not guilty to second-degree murder in the February 26 shooting of Martin.
A copy of the complaint posted by Zimmerman's attorneys on the website GZvNBC.com names NBCUniversal Media, current reporter Ron Allen and former reporters Lilia Rodriguez Luciano and Jeff Burnside as defendants.
Zimmerman alleges in the complaint that the airing of the edited call along with misrepresentations that he used a "racial epithet" during the call have misled the public to believe he told the dispatcher he suspected Martin was engaged in criminal activity because he was black.
"NBC News saw the death of Trayvon Martin not as a 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," Zimmerman alleges in the complaint. "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."
According to the complaint as it appears on the website, NBC allegedly aired two separate "doctored" portions of the 911 call on consecutive days.
On March 19, according to the complaint, NBC and Burnside aired manipulated audio of the 911 call in which Zimmerman could be heard telling the 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.'"
On March 20, the complaint alleges, NBC and Luciano aired a different version of the edited call in which Zimmerman could be heard saying, "'This guy looks like he's up to no good or on drugs or something. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male.'"
On March 22, according to the complaint, NBC and Luciano aired another edited version of the call in which Zimmerman could be heard telling the dispatcher, "'He looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.'"
On March 27, the complaint alleges, Allen, on The Today Show, broadcast a fourth, slightly-different edited version of the call, in which Zimmerman could be heard saying, "'This guy looks like he's up to no good. He looks black.'"
In the actual conversation, according to the complaint, Zimmerman told the dispatcher, "'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 which point the dispatcher asked Zimmerman whether Martin was "'black, white or Hispanic,'" to which Zimmerman responded, "'He looks black.'"
The complaint on the website alleges NBC's airing of what the plaintiffs are calling "doctored" audio made it appear that "Zimmerman's actions were motivated by racial stereotypes, rather than by 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 complaint alleges.
The complaint also alleges that, along with the multiple edited versions of the 911 call that were aired by NBC, Burnside and Luciano, another NBC reporter misrepresented the call in a March 20 broadcast.
According to the complaint, Allen reported that Zimmerman described Martin to the 911 dispatcher "using a racial epithet."
"The defendants knew that Zimmerman did not use a 'racial epithet' to describe Martin, yet they maliciously and conclusively stated that he did, for the purposes of portraying Zimmerman as a hostile racist," the complaint alleges, adding that the defendants made this statement in part to "encourage an investigation and prosecution of Zimmerman."
According to the complaint appearing on the website, Luciano and Burnside were both terminated, but not until after other news outlets reported on the edited audio aired by NBC.
Allen still works for NBC, according to the complaint.
"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,'" the complaint alleges. "By then, the damage was done, the indelible image of Zimmerman stalking Martin because 'he looks black' fixed in the public consciousness."
The complaint claims Zimmerman has since received death threats, threats of capture and has had a bounty placed on him, resulting in "a constant, genuine fear for his life resulting in his need to, among other things, live in hiding and wear a bulletproof vest."
"Zimmerman was even dismissed from his college because the school felt the death threats were dangerous to fellow students," alleges the complaint as it appears on the website.
The complaint alleges Zimmerman has suffered "severe and permanent emotional distress, mental anguish, embarrassment and humiliation."
Zimmerman is seeking compensatory and punitive damages and is demanding a jury trial.
"What NBC did is in large part what created this national and international outrage against George," Jim Beasley Jr. of The Beasley Firm in Philadelphia, one of Zimmerman's attorneys, told The Legal on Thursday. Mark O'Mara of Orlando-based O'Mara Law Group is also representing Zimmerman in the suit.
A spokesperson for NBC could not be reached for comment late on Thursday.
Burnside, who is now a reporter for KOMO 4 News in Seattle, and Luciano, now a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, did not respond to requests for comment late on Thursday.