What Trayvon Martin and Ethan Saylor Have in Common

Trayvon Martin was an African-American. He was walking home from the 7-11. George Zimmerman thought he posed a threat, and he ended up shooting him dead. Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in self-defense. He was acquitted of both second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. At best, this was a tragedy in which one man used unnecessary force to defend himself. At worst, the verdict was a miscarriage of justice in the face of murder.

Robert Ethan Saylor had Down syndrome. He had just finished watching Zero Dark Thirty. He wanted to see it again without paying for a second movie ticket. When he tried to reenter the theater without paying, the theater personnel called in three security officers who were not in uniform. In the process of wrestling Ethan to the floor and handcuffing him, he struggled, cried out for help, and died on the floor, of suffocation. The autopsy report states his cause of death as “homicide resulting from asphyxia.” No one has been formally accused of any wrongdoing. Saylor’s family and the public have been denied access to the details of the investigation. Again, at best, this was a tragedy in which three men used unnecessary force. At worst, the silence from the sheriff’s office indicates their unwillingness to address a murder.

Both situations involve the tragic death of a young man who had done nothing to provoke or deserve such a fate. Both situations also involve individuals who represent larger populations of people who have been oppressed for many years. Although the results remain in dispute, I am glad that Martin’s death became a matter for the public record. For months, this trial and the issues of race and justice it provokes have not only been a matter for a court of law but also a topic of public debate. Whether or not the Justice Department decides to pursue the issue as a potential civil rights violation, people of all races have had an opportunity to consider the continued fraught relationship between ethnic groups within our nation.

Not so with Ethan Saylor. Writers for the Washington Post have kept the story in the news, but it has not received widespread national attention. Again, the officers involved in Saylor’s death were never charged. The details of the investigation remain closed to the public and even to Saylor’s family.

Trayvon Martin’s family is not satisfied with the results of the trial. They will never be compensated for the loss they have suffered. But they have had access to information about his death, and their son’s life has sparked a national conversation about race that might just lead to positive change.

I can only hope that the legal system and the media will give Ethan Saylor’s family the same attention, the same access to what happened the night he died, and the same opportunity for us to have a conversation about how to treat individuals with Down syndrome with respect and compassion rather than brute force.

For more information about what you can do, click here.

***Update: Just this week, details of the investigation have been released, which include the information that Saylor’s aide warned police that he would “freak out” if they tried to touch him. To read more, click here.

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About Amy Julia Becker

Amy Julia Becker writes and speaks about family, faith, disability, and culture. A graduate of Princeton University and Princeton Theological Seminary, she is the author of Penelope Ayers: A Memoir, A Good and Perfect Gift (Bethany House), and Why I Am Both Spiritual and Religious (Patheos Press).


  1. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Zimmerman was high-strung, but we have excellent evidence that he made a thoroughly understandable decision under a frightening assault. The security officers in the case of Ethan Saylor wildly, violently overreacted and manhandled a helpless boy to his accidental death. These cases have no significant similarities, and it is in poor taste for you to act like they do.

  2. Jennifer Atsma says:

    I think she is just trying to get Saylor the same attention that Martin got. If anything, his case deserves it more, but saying something like that in an article would dissolve the sympathy connection that she wants people to make.

  3. Esther O'Reilly says:

    I actually think she should have said exactly that, because we shouldn’t be trying to make a sympathy connection. It doesn’t serve the truth. However, she could still have made a powerful point using the media circus over the Martin case, but framing it something like this: “Martin’s case is getting a disproportionate amount of attention while this legitimately outrageous breach of justice is passing by unnoticed.” I know her intention was to honor the Down’s Syndrome community, but comparing Ethan Saylor to a violent thug, albeit one who lost his life under tragic circumstances, is an odd way to go about it!

  4. Too bad Trayvon Martin isn’t here to tell his side of the story. I’ll bet it would sound much different from the story that Zimmerman told. However, compassionate hearts see the similarity that the author has rightly made, and I’m grateful to her for making the connection in a way that too many in the media have too little empathy to achieve. Thank you, Mrs. Becker. Because of this blog post, I will strive to learn more about Ethan Saylor’s death.

  5. Esther O'Reilly says:

    I’m not sure you understand the weakness of the prosecuting case even apart from taking Zimmerman’s word for it. This isn’t just “Well Zimmerman said, but who knows?” Witnesses *saw* Trayvon straddling and pounding Zimmerman, “MMA style.” Whether or not Zimmerman was wise to follow Trayvon in the first place is a separate issue, and it could be argued that Zimmerman did so unnecessarily. However, it is *no longer in dispute* what the circumstances were that led to Zimmerman’s use of lethal force. Read up on the facts of the case.

  6. NYC Parent says:

    Trayvon Martin and Ethan Saylor both died, unarmed, at the hands of grown men that used excessive force. George Zimmerman targeted Martin because he was black and I belive that fueled his aggression. Ethan Saylor died at the hands of the overly aggressive “security guards” due to a lack of understanding of how to deal with a person who has an ID. I think they are very similiar and I applaud this article.

  7. NYC Parent says:

    “a violent thug” really? Come on Esther your prejudice is showing.

  8. Esther O'Reilly says:

    1. The tape recording used by the prosecution was deceitfully edited to make it appear to be a case of pure racial profiling. As it was, there could have been other factors Zimmerman was cuing to, and it is certainly not clear that he followed Trayvon “just because he was black,” particularly given the other character evidence we have about Zimmerman.

    2. When you’re being beaten into the ground with death threats screamed over you, you don’t care one way or the other what race the attacker is. You instinctively try to protect yourself. That’s what Zimmerman did at the moment he pulled his gun, it’s certainly what I would have done had I been armed, and I don’t care if the attacker is a white supremacist skinhead. It doesn’t matter. This has nothing to do with race. It’s a fundamental issue of self defense.

    3. Ethan wasn’t attacking anyone at the moment of his death. He was lost, frightened, confused and completely at the mercy of the security guards. That’s why I was so strongly opposed to comparing the two cases. Ethan wasn’t posing a direct threat to *anyone*, therefore the guards had *no* excuse whatsoever for handling him the way they did. Although Zimmerman was unwise to initiate a confrontation with Martin in the first place, he had ample excuse for actually pulling the trigger when he did.

  9. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Not prejudice, just the facts and the evidence we have. You’re acting like I think all black people are necessarily violent thugs! Don’t be ridiculous.

  10. A. Davis says:

    The legal key to self-defense is that you defend yourself when the other party acts aggressively first. Since no one saw the beginning of the physical altercation between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman then we have to take the latter at his word as the former is no longer living.

    With that understanding, it’s completely plausible that Zimmerman actually hit first and found himself outmatched. We don’t know and we will never know one way or the other. But if you can’t recognize that fact much less refuse to recognize that possibility then your opinion is subverted by unreasonable bias.

  11. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Zimmerman probably approached Trayvon and raised his voice to get him to stop. It’s also possible that he touched or grabbed Martin. I’m not saying that was wise, by any means. But it’s not plausible that Zimmerman would have attacked Martin and tried to beat him up. What motivation would he have had? He wanted to have words with him and make sure he wasn’t just wandering around looking for trouble, but I don’t see how attacking him would have helped that. Besides, it doesn’t fit with what we know of Zimmerman’s personality.

  12. Susan_G1 says:

    Thank you for calling this to my attention. Excellent post.

    Edited to add the link for Ethan Saylor is very helpful. Thanks again!

  13. Susan_G1 says:

    high-strung? Are you serious? He was a known perpetrator of domestic violence. He molested his cousin, who called police a few days after the shooting, stating, “I know George. And I know that he does not like black people. He would start something. He’s a very confrontational person. It’s in
    his blood. Let’s just say that. I don’t want this poor kid and his
    family to just be overlooked.”He was arrested for fighting with police officers. He called the police 49 times complaining about black males. Your “evidence” is not “excellent”. He was found not guilty, at best, because the prosecution failed to make it’s case (and so deserved to be acquitted), and at worst, because the justice system in Florida is seriously unfit.

  14. George Estreich says:

    Amy Julia, thanks for an excellent post. I think there’s one more parallel worth mentioning: the use of excessive force by people operating in a gray area, neither police nor military. In the one case, it was an overzealous “neighborhood watch” volunteer; and in the other, sheriff’s deputies moonlighting as security guards. (Many police departments have policies against this. But then, it’s been known for years that face down restraints can lead to asphyxiation.)

    Apparently the report on the Saylor case was just released. One new piece of information is that the deputies were warned, by Saylor’s caregiver, that he should not be confronted:


    I don’t know if you plan to respond to some of the comments below, and I won’t make the mistake of claiming to know your intentions. But having read many of your posts–including this one–I’m pretty sure you’re not doing something as crass as “trying to make a sympathy connection” or as vague as “trying to honor the Down syndrome community.” Based on your words, I’d say you’re delving into necessary but insoluble issues: the injustice attached to race and disability; the fact that not all injustices are equally visible; and the ways in which our legal system can be lacking, when it comes to disadvantaged groups.

  15. NYC Parent says:

    Esther, Zimmerman’s attorneys have publicly stated that Travon was followed because he was black. So, no need to argue that. No one knows who threw the first punch or what happened during the confrontation because there were no witnesses aside from the two people involved and one of them is dead. I will tell you that I sustained an injury to the back of my head by hitting a wall, not concrete, a wal,l and my injury was MUCH more severe than the one allegedly sustained by Zimmerman at the hands of Trayvon. It also, should be apparent to you that if Trayvon were really on top of Zimmerman, in the manner describe by Zimmerman it would have been nearly impossible for Zimmerman to reach his weapon. A grown man does not have use a gun to defend himself against a 158lbs boy. Lastly, what behaviors was Trayvon displaying when George started following him that qualified him as a thug? Or, what has made you jump to that conclusion? Did he have a criminal record, no. George Zimmerman, however had several run ins with the law that were squashed by his father, one for domestic violence. He also spoke of how he wished he could run over Mexicans on his Myspace page. Anyway, why let the truth get in the way of a good story, huh?

  16. NYC Parent says:

    would love to hear why you classify Trayvon as a thug.

  17. Esther O'Reilly says:

    We have evidence that he was a thief and a drug-user, which was buried and covered up by the media. His twitter account shows that he was foul-mouthed and viewed women as objects. When he was on the phone with his girlfriend, he was spewing racist hate talk about Zimmerman.

    No comparison with Saylor. None.

  18. NYC Parent says:

    Esther, I’m ending my debate with you. I would encourage you to really examine your views on issues of race.

  19. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Thank you, it was a waste of my time and yours.

    My view on race is that all men are created equal in the eyes of God and deserve to be treated with dignity.

  20. George, thanks for chiming in and for your support. I am about to add an update in the body of the post with the information that came out yesterday about the Saylor case. And you are correct in guessing my intentions in drawing parallels between race and disability. I have to wonder, though, whether the outrage over the Martin case and the relative lack of outrage in the Saylor case might have to do with a media bias “against” people with intellectual disabilities. Bias might be too strong a word, but the cultural elite, which includes our sources of news and information on both the left and the right, tends to overlook and/or demonstrate systematic and pervasive ignorance of people with ID. I think that plays in to the relative silence about Saylor’s death. Thanks again for your point of view.

  21. Esther, you’ve missed the whole point of the blog post.

  22. “…all men are created equal…and deserve to be treated with dignity.” Including Trayvon Martin, who was still a child, had undoubtedly not reached his life’s potential, and is no longer here to speak for himself.

  23. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Part of treating people with dignity is treating them as free beings with the capacity to make choices for themselves, not automatons or people who don’t know better. Trayvon was practically an adult, fully grown, and our evidence indicates that he engaged in aggravated assault. I believe people have a right to defend themselves when they’re being assaulted, and that applies to all races. I don’t believe in attacking, arresting or harming anyone for no reason, but I do believe in self-defense.

  24. George Estreich says:

    I wonder if this might have been reported differently if Ethan Saylor had been younger. I think that much of the silence around ID has to do with people’s discomfort, and that discomfort is magnified when it comes to adults. When people don’t know what to say, they often choose silence. Whatever the intent, the result is invisibility.

  25. Maria Mitchell says:

    You forgot the fact that Martin was banging Zimmerman’s head into the concrete. The young man in the movie theater provoked no one.

  26. TheodoreSeeber says:

    Saylor, unlike Zimmerman, is in a class that they now encourage abortion before birth.

    Only 60% of blacks are aborted in the United States, compared with 90% of prenatally diagnosed Downs Syndrome fetuses.

    Face it, Saylor doesn’t matter, because he’s the unfit:

  27. f_galton says:

    Zimmerman targeted Martin because Martin was on top of him punching him in the face.

  28. f_galton says:

    I think that head injury you sustained was worse than you realize.

  29. NYC Parent says:

    Unfortunately, the only other witness to the start of the altercation is dead. No need to debate further.

  30. f_galton says:

    There’s nothing unfortunate about it.

  31. That’s a lie – Zimmerman mentored black youngsters and had no racism of any kind. The fact is that it was black males who were committing crimes in the area.

  32. Dear Amy Julia,

    I typically enjoy the thoughtfulness and rigor behind your posts. I applaud your passion for disability rights and have often found my thinking enriched by your insights. However, I find the parallel you have created here most unproductive because of the superficial similarities between the cases that you have chosen to highlight.

    First, there is a difference between someone taking a shortcut through a neighborhood while on his way home and someone trying to watch a movie a second time without paying for it. The first instance is an example of racial profiling by someone without an established position of authority while the second appears to be one in which established authorities were ill-equipped to respond to the situation and used brutally excessive force.

    Following from this, your comparison would be stronger if Saylor had been targeted by movie theater security prior to his attempts to see the movie a second time without paying for it. By this I mean to say that if security had followed him from the moment he arrived in the theater because there had been a recent spate of illegal activities perpetrated by others with Down’s Syndrome, you would have had a stronger argument. There would then be a connection between this trend influencing their mistreatment of Saylor.

    In addition, your comparison levels race with disability…a point that I would hope you would give greater thought to in the future. The failure of this comparison lies in the largely undisputed treatment of disabilities like Down’s Syndrome as a positioning that requires sensitivity and care. Conversely, claims of racial profiling and discrimination are often disputed and dismissed as examples of hypersensitivity, particularly because of the high visibility of African-American professionals and President Obama.

    Moreover, most strikingly, your “update” offers a bit of much-needed information: Saylor’s aide was present and able to warn police about Saylor’s potential response. This points toward the clarifying role that having a witness present who also functioned as an advocate at the time of Trayvon’s death would have had during the trial.

    Like you, I also hope that more media attention is given to Robert Ethan Saylor’s case. There is much to be gained from noting how Americans from marginalized people groups are often treated.

  33. Noah Smith says:

    Slave owners said the same thing

  34. Jerry Lynch says:

    If the august body of the SCOTUS believes racism is gone, no longer a troubling fact of everyday life (“Hey, look, we have a Black president”), who are we the people to continue talking about it. Like Zimmerman’s lawyer said, “Had he been Black, this never would have gone to trial.” (Not too long ago that meant lynched.) But today there are no color barriers (except about 41 new laws for voter registration) or racial tension or favortism; full and free equality has been reached. What a relief. And if some revisionist wants to point to what he or she believes is wanton prejudice, that is easily remedied by a few choice words: “Oh, playing the race card again, eh?”

  35. Desiree, thanks for your thoughtful response to this post. Your final sentence summarizes the parallel I wanted to draw between Martin and Saylor. I was not trying to say that their deaths were the same, for all the reasons you state. And while it grieves me to see how divided we are as a nation when it comes to the Zimmerman verdict, I am still glad that this story has riveted the national consciousness. The case itself of course was a trial about very specific details, but the larger conversation about race and profiling and stand your ground laws and so forth is, I hope and pray, one that might lead to greater awareness of the biases we all hold that could, if unchecked, lead to tragedy.

    The Saylor case is different in many ways, and yet it carries with it the possibility for a similar set of conversations about the integration of people with ID into society. As you write, there is much to be gained from noting how Americans from marginalized people groups are often treated.

  36. Esther O'Reilly says:

    And therefore I must support slavery. Oh wait, that doesn’t follow.

  37. Noah Smith says:

    No it just means proclaiming “all men are created equal” isn’t a “get out of jail free” card when it comes to racism.

  38. Esther O'Reilly says:

    I agree. So what’s your definition of racism?

  39. His comments on his old myspace proves how arrogant and racist he is. Sorry, but there was no frightening assault of any kind.

  40. Noah Smith says:

    A denial of humanity.

  41. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Well that’s mighty sweeping, but I’m afraid you can’t accuse you me of racism under your own definition then, because I believe Trayvon Martin was a human being with the same rights under the law as you or I. I just don’t happen to think those rights include “the right not to be followed if you’re in a rough neighborhood and a neighborhood watch officer sees you wandering around in an odd-looking way late at night.”

  42. Noah Smith says:

    Esther read again what you’ve just written. Is it really your contention that the right to life is void when an American comes under suspicion by another American? And does wandering around in a odd looking way at night sanctions death? I recently came across two news items which troubles me: One was of a white guy complaining to a bunch of black guys in a car about the loud music. It escalated into an argument and the white guy shot randomly into the car, killing one of the occupants. He then went back home and ordered pizza. Another was a white guy shooting a black guy after a argument, then he went back to his house a cooked dinner. The dead black guy was left lying on his porch. These are human lives that are being taken but increasingly both shooters and their (online) supporters seem to treat the matter as if vermin have been exterminated. I mentioned my concerns on another blog and somebody replied: “What about all the white guys killed by blacks? Why aren’t you bothered about that?” Sometimes I despair.

  43. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Perhaps you’re the one who needs to read again what I’ve just written. The right to life is not void. I said that Trayvon didn’t have a right not to be *followed*. That is the damning crime we’re all debating, is it not? A little reading comprehension would be helpful here.

  44. Noah Smith says:

    I did read it, obviously I don’t agree. The racial profiling lead to his death. Surely any African American can walk anywhere without being followed or are we back to “Sun down” towns again?

  45. Noah Smith says:

    Esther, would you like to be followed at night by a stranger?

  46. Esther O'Reilly says:

    Where has it been established that Zimmerman was racially profiling Martin? I don’t think that’s been proven, and there are several non-racial reasons why Zimmerman might have felt a need to keep an eye on him. He was cutting between two houses, looked like he had drugs in his system, wandering around late at night, AND there had been a recent rash of crimes committed by young men. I’m not trying to defend racial profiling. That’s a separate debate. You’re the one who keeps dragging the conversation back into the realm of race.

    And don’t be ridiculous. A young man wandering around late at night is much more likely to be up to something than a young woman walking home.

  47. Michael Cummings says:

    Maybe my facts are wrong but I understood Martin to be a self appointed, racist person advised by the police (some of whom he knew) to leave him alone. He brought a gun while bothering this young man and everyone knows he could be forced to use it. His story changed after he was advised by his friends in the force who know how to cast reasonable doubt, and the voice in the recording is the sound I make when threatened with a gun. Does this story have to be about “those who think we ought to be able to carry a gun against those who think we shouldn’t”? I voted for a democrat once in my life, a racist hater, a half black half white silver spoon (though completely accepted as a black man from the hood slash ghetto) who spent some time in Kenya (a country I love). I was given this decision when I was about 18…that was like 1992. I can’t say if that’s why he married a Robinson my mother’s maiden name…her father killed Hitler (with me)…but it was one vote…I wasn’t allowed to vote in 2008 (though also not near as impressed with a vice president). I didn’t like Romney, I was afraid for Mrs Palin…white supremists are not impressed with Christians who think they are free (and therefore easy to manipulate…like me I am sure you all would think AT BEST). The truth is at best most people seem to only want to pray if they need something. I AM OFTEN FORCED TO PRAY OVER MY FOOD TO SURVIVE. I PRAY TO GET HOME. I PRAY MY WIFE DOESN’T BELIEVE WHAT SHE SEES OR HEARS OR THINKS OR FEELS OR TASTES. And…that’s probably all I really wanted to say.

  48. Michael Cummings says:

    Uhhh…no need to debate further…he is dead…? You are an idiot

  49. Michael Cummings says:

    Nothing unfortunate about it. A young black male is dead. You are a pig.

  50. Michael Cummings says:

    Don’t bring skittles to a gun fight unless you are old enough to carry a “piece”. I might have tried to defend myself! I don’t like being stalked by white or beige supremists.

  51. Michael Cummings says:

    We had him told to leave him alone and heard him beg for his life.

  52. Michael Cummings says:

    If you don’t believe that don’t say it in such a coy manner, speak plain.

  53. Michael Cummings says:

    Washington the hemp farmer may roll in his grave…again…he didn’t deserve to die…I stand by the verdict…but you are wrong to defend Zimmerman who is armed against a dead young male.

  54. Michael Cummings says:

    You are trying him as an adult? You are wrong!

  55. Michael Cummings says:

    No no you don’t support slavery…he is dead moron…a child.

  56. Michael Cummings says:

    Hmmm…odd looking. Sure good enough for me class dismissed before I am wholly sick

  57. Michael Cummings says:

    Stalking IS provoking.

  58. Michael Cummings says:

    Just because I told the white supremists “aspirin is more dangerous than pot” now when wrongly incarcerated I can’t have my aspirin regiment but instead the crooked FDA gives me Tylenol or Ibuprofen. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it” should have applied to my family not my bank account.

  59. Michael Cummings says:

    Only…you are plain WRONG and probably laughed while you wrote that BS. Oh I am done here…sorry I wasted all our time with MY opinion.