Many demand answers on teen shot in Sanford

Crime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemFirearmsHomicideUniversity of Central FloridaSeminole CountySanford Police Department

SANFORD — Most of the people demanding justice for Trayvon Martin did not know the teen, who was shot to death by a crime-watch volunteer.

But people in this community and beyond want to know how an unarmed 17-year-old who simply went to a nearby 7-Eleven for a bag of Skittles never made it home alive. They are organizing rallies and venting their anger on Facebook and Twitter.

A prominent Baltimore evangelist is scheduled to hold a rally today at a Sanford church. Another event, organized by college students in Tallahassee, is planned for Monday outside the Seminole County Courthouse.

"There must be justice," the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a televangelist, tweeted.

Trayvon, a high-school junior from Miami who was visiting family in a gated community here, was shot to death Feb. 26 when he encountered George Michael Zimmerman, captain of the neighborhood-crime-watch group.

Trayvon was returning from the convenience store and was confronted by Zimmerman, who had already called the cops to report a "suspicious person" in the neighborhood.

The Sanford Police Department on Tuesday turned the case over to the State Attorney's Office, saying it had completed its investigation.

Prosecutors, including State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, must now decide whether to charge 28-year-old Zimmerman with a crime. They will likely take several weeks to review the evidence and may do more investigating, a spokeswoman said.

But whatever decision they reach, it won't make everyone happy.

Trayvon's family, attorneys and supporters say he is the victim of racial profiling and demand that Zimmerman be charged with murder. There is little chance of that. Zimmerman says he acted in self-defense, and police never considered the case as anything but possible manslaughter.

At a news conference Monday that was intended to ease racial tensions, police Chief Bill Lee Jr. tried to explain that his detectives simply could not find enough evidence to justify an arrest.

And his office had not — and would not — release a recording of Zimmerman's phone call to police the night of the shooting because it was part of an ongoing investigation, a common practice by law-enforcement agencies.

Lee, though, was shouted down and criticized by more than a dozen angry black residents who had gathered outside Sanford's City Hall for the news conference.

"This person," cried Gloria Coleman, one of those who had gathered, "he took a life."

2 views on his character

George Zimmerman is a good guy, said neighbor Frank Taaffee. Residents in the Retreat at Twin Lakes community have grown worried about burglaries, drug use and drug dealing, he said, and blamed young black men.

A few weeks ago, Zimmerman noticed that Taaffee was not home but had left one of his windows open. Zimmerman also spotted a young black man watching the house, Taaffee said, and called him. Taaffee rushed home and found nothing out of place.

"I can't speak for George other than that he's been good for the neighborhood, and he's spot-on," Taaffee said.

The family's attorneys have portrayed Zimmerman as something far different: a wannabe cop who studied criminal justice at the University of Central Florida, had a concealed-weapons permit, patrolled his neighborhood while carrying a 9 mm handgun and confronted Trayvon simply because he was black and wore a hoodie.

"Racism is too simple. It may have been a factor," said family attorney Natalie Jackson. But also to blame was Zimmerman's "hero complex." He should never have gotten out of his vehicle and confronted Trayvon, she said.

"You take race out of it, and there's still a lot to be upset about," Jackson said, adding that police should have simply arrested Zimmerman and let a judge and jury decide whether he acted in self-defense.

Gun law experts on Tuesday said there's not enough information about what happened between Trayvon and Zimmerman to say whether the crime-watch captain broke the law.

Orlando attorney Jon Gutmacher, in an email to the Orlando Sentinel, wrote that the law allows people to "stand their ground" and use deadly force when defending themselves.

Trayvon had no criminal record and was not violent, his family's attorneys said. Zimmerman has a single arrest. When he was a 21 and a UCF student, one of his friends was being arrested by state alcohol agents for serving underage drinkers, according to his arrest report.

Zimmerman began talking to the suspect, and when agents ordered him to stop and tried to escort him away, he became profane and pushed the agent's hands, the report said. "After a short struggle," the report said, Zimmerman was handcuffed and arrested.

Prosecutors charged him with resisting arrest without violence, and he entered a pretrial-diversion program, something common for first-time nonviolent offenders, who then wind up with no conviction on their records.

'I'm saddened'

Lindsay Oyewale is no firebrand. She's a black lawyer and a 38-year-old mother of four who lives in Sanford and sits on the city's planning-and-zoning board. She has watched from the sidelines what has happened in Trayvon's case.

"I'm saddened that a trip to a convenience store resulted in a funeral," she said. "I'm further saddened that the parents of this young man don't have answers to basic questions about what happened."

Her father was born in Sanford in 1929, then moved away and raised her in Harlem, she said. The first time he came back to visit her in Sanford, she said, he hesitated because her neighborhood had been off-limits to him as a boy.

Sanford is a town with a segregated past and people who suffered through that, she said.

"When there are situations such as this," she said, "when there is a scab, it is reopened."

rstutzman@tribune.com or 407-650-6394. hcurtis@tribune.com or 407-420-5257.

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