SANFORD — James Davis gripped the hands of the people on either side of him, closed his eyes and prayed for justice in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The lifelong Sanford resident was one of nearly 400 people, including many influential local civil-rights leaders and pastors, who packed the Allen Chapel AME Church to call for an arrest in the slaying of the unarmed black teen by a white crime-watch volunteer last month.
"What occurred here is tragic and horrific," said Davis, 64. "Every American citizen should be outraged."
Davis, like many others, thinks Trayvon was confronted — and ultimately shot to death — because he was black. The shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested or charged. Sanford police say they don't have enough evidence to make an arrest.
But more than two weeks after the Feb.26 incident, controversy continues to mount around the shooting and the Police Department's handling of the case.
At noon Wednesday, people packed the pews to hear rallying cries from local leaders and the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a prominent Baltimore evangelist who traveled to Central Florida at the request of a pastor here.
"We come together today in the name of justice," said Allen Chapel AME Pastor Valerie Henry. "We stand as [Trayvon's] voice."
The crowd cheered, clapped and shouted amen as leaders from the
, Urban League and the Sanford City Commission pledged to fight for justice.
"I will stand, even if I stand alone," said Commissioner Velma Williams, adding that she has asked for police Chief Bill Lee Jr. to "step aside" — a request greeted with applause from the crowd.
About an hour into the rally, Bryant addressed the group. The charismatic preacher spoke softly at first but grew increasingly boisterous until he was shouting. As Bryant's calls became more urgent, people jumped to their feet, threw their hands in the air and cheered.
"We call for an immediate arrest. We want him behind bars," Bryant said, referring to Zimmerman. "Because you have arrested a lot of black men without probable cause."
People seemed energized by Bryant's talk.
"If there is no justice...," Bryant said.
"There is no peace," the crowd shouted back in response.
Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett addressed the crowd briefly, noting that his two young sons go to school near the church where the rally was held.
"Today when I drove over here, I thought to myself, 'What if…,'" he said, but didn't complete the thought.
Triplett pledged a full review of the investigation, even if he has to pay for it himself. His comments were often interrupted by questions and demands from the crowd, but those people were quickly shushed by others.
Trayvon, a 17-year-old from Miami, was visiting family in the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community when he crossed paths with Zimmerman.
The teen was returning from a nearby 7-Eleven with a bag of Skittles in his pocket when he was confronted by Zimmerman, who had already called the cops to report a "suspicious person" in the neighborhood.
During an altercation, Zimmerman shot Trayvon. That is not in dispute. The crime-watch volunteer claimed he acted in self-defense, and police have said some evidence supports that claim, though they would not release details.
At least one eyewitness, who said Trayvon was shot behind her home, told a WFTV-Channel9 television reporter that the shooting "could not have been self-defense." Zimmerman was nonchalant after the shooting, Mary Cutcher told the news station. Police only took a brief statement from her, she said.
on Tuesday turned the case over to the State Attorney's Office, saying it had completed its investigation. Prosecutors 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.
At the church rally Wednesday, Bryant called on people — locally and across the nation — to join him March26 at 4p.m. for a rally and demonstration during the Sanford City Council meeting. Trayvon's mother is expected to attend.
"This is a wake-up call for the state of Florida," Bryant said, "and for any racist who has a gun and thinks it's a license to kill our children."
Those words resonated with Davis, the longtime Sanford resident.
He was raised here and raised his two boys here. He defends Sanford fiercely. This racially motivated shooting, in his eyes, was the exception and not the rule.
But it scares him.
He's afraid for his own 8-year-old grandson who often visits from Chicago. He worries about what could happen if this killing has no repercussion or justice.
"It'd kill me if my grandson came to visit me in an airplane," Davis said with tears in his eyes, "and I had to send him home in a casket."