Feds to probe killing of black teen
Federal and state prosecutors are investigating the fatal shooting of an unarmed black Florida teenager by a neighborhood crime watch volunteer in a case that has provoked a national outcry.
Florida State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said Tuesday he will convene a grand jury April 10 in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high school student fatally shot Feb. 26 in a gated community in Sanford just north of Orlando, while walking from a convenience store.
On Monday, the Justice Department said it also would investigate the shooting by neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28, who said he acted in self-defense. Sanford police said they have not arrested Mr. Zimmerman because under Florida law they cannot disprove his claim of self-defense.
The federal and state investigations come after the victim’s family and protesters raised questions about the Sanford police’s handling of the case. Police have described Mr. Zimmerman as white. His family said he is Hispanic and not a racist.
On Tuesday, Benjamin Crump, the Martin family lawyer, charged that the teenager was on the phone with a girlfriend until moments before he was killed. He played a recording of his interview with the girl who said Trayvon told her he was being followed. She said she heard Trayvon ask a stranger “Why are you following me?” followed by another man asking “What are you doing around here?”
Mr. Crump said the girl lost contact with Trayvon before he was shot.
“She absolutely blows Zimmerman’s absurd self-defense claim out of the water,” the lawyer said, adding that Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested immediately.
On recordings of the 911 calls by neighbors, there is a voice calling for help just before the gunshot. That person has not been identified, but the Martin family thinks it is the teenager. Police think it is Mr. Zimmerman.
Mr. Zimmerman could not be reached for comment. A telephone number listed for him has been disconnected.
His father, Robert Zimmerman, said in a letter to the Orlando Sentinel that his son “would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever.” He said the media portrayal of his son as a racist “could not be further from the truth.”
In announcing his investigation, Mr. Wolfinger said he shared the desire of the Martin family and the community to “accurately collect and evaluate all the facts surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.” He urged the public to remain patient, adding that it was “entitled to no less than a thorough, deliberate and just review of the facts.”
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI said they would conduct “a thorough and independent review” of the evidence and take appropriate action. The department noted, however, that it had to “prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids.”
“Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws,” the department said.
The Sanford Police Department said it turned over an investigation to the state attorney’s office that is fair, complete and not racially motivated. Sgt. Dave Morgenstern said that, based on the evidence, the department could not dispute Mr. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.
Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, people who feel they are being threatened are allowed to stand and defend themselves without retreating.
Mr. Zimmerman was patrolling the gated Retreat at Twin Lakes community in his SUV when he called 911 after seeing Trayvon walking through the neighborhood. Concerned about recent break-ins, he described the teenager to the 911 dispatcher as a “real suspicious guy . . . up to no good or on drugs or something.” He asked that a police officer be sent to the scene when Trayvon started to run.
Recordings of the call show the dispatcher told him not to follow the teenager, but Mr. Zimmerman — carrying a licensed 9mm handgun — did anyway. Trayvon was killed a few minutes later, shot in the chest.
Trayvon had bought Skittles and an iced tea at a convenience store and was walking back to the house of his father’s girlfriend when he was shot.