Saturday, December 7, 2013
By CURT ANDERSON The Associated Press
Florida is among 21 states with a "Stand Your Ground Law," which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight. The self-defense law helps explain why a neighborhood watch captain has not been arrested in the shooting death of an unarmed teenager.
Protester Rene Panko of Tampa, center, and others gather early for a Thursday evening rally for 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch captain, at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford, Fla.
The Associated Press
Sanford, Fla., Police Chief Bill Lee holds a Thursday news conference in Sanford, Fla. City commissioners gave him a “no confidence” vote late Wednesday.
The Associated Press
POLICE CHIEF, PROSECUTOR LEAVE FATAL SHOOTING CASE
SANFORD, Fla. - The police chief and prosecutor who have been bitterly criticized for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager both left the case Thursday, with the chief saying that he is temporarily leaving his job to let passions cool.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee's decision came less than a day after city commissioners gave him a "no confidence" vote, and after a couple of weeks of protests and uproar on social media websites. Lee has said evidence in the case supported George Zimmerman's claim that the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was self-defense.
"I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to a city which has been in turmoil for several weeks," Lee said.
About three hours later, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the local state attorney, Norman Wolfinger, had recused himself from the case. In a letter to Scott, Wolfinger said that while he thought he could fairly oversee any prosecution that develops in the case, his recusal was aimed at "toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation." Scott appointed Angela B. Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take over the case.
Scott also appointed a task force led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to conduct hearings on the case and to make recommendations for any changes to state law or procedures. Carroll is African-American.
-- The Associated Press
The Florida law lets police on the scene decide whether they believe the self-defense claim. In many cases, the officers make an arrest and leave it to the courts to work out whether the deadly force is justified. In this case, however, police have said they are confident they did the right thing by not charging 28-year-old George Zimmerman.
The teenager was black. Police say Zimmerman is white; his family says he's Hispanic. The shooting's racial overtones have sparked a national outcry and debate over whether the shooting was warranted. And like in many self-defense cases, two sides of the story have emerged.
Zimmerman told police he was attacked by 17-year-old Trayvon Martin after he had given up chasing the boy and he was returning to his truck. He had a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head, according to police. Martin's family questions Zimmerman's story, and believes if their races were reversed, there is no doubt a black gunman would be jailed, even if he claimed self-defense.
"They are making it look like Zimmerman is the victim and their son is in the grave," said Benjamin Crump, attorney for Martin's parents. "It's about equal justice."
The Justice Department and FBI have opened a civil rights investigation, and the local prosecutor has convened a grand jury April 10 to determine whether to charge Zimmerman.
Based on what's publicly known about the case, Michael Siegel, a former federal prosecutor who now directs the Criminal Justice Center and Clinics at the University of Florida law school, said it appears Sanford police were too quick to decide whether Zimmerman should be charged. If the evidence is murky, he said, the usual practice is to make the arrest and let the court system sort it out.
"The law has definitely shifted and given a signal to law enforcement to be more careful," he said. "But in a case where the self-defense claim is weak, you would think they would do their job."
In a statement Wednesday, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee insisted his officers were "prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time," including physical evidence that supported Zimmerman's self-defense claim.
"The Sanford Police Department has conducted a complete and fair investigation of this incident," Lee said, adding that it's now up to prosecutors to determine whether to bring charges.
Late Wednesday, commissioners in Sanford voted 3-2 to express "no confidence" in the police chief.
Under the National Rifle Association-backed law passed in 2005, Florida grants immunity from prosecution or arrest to suspects who successfully invoke the "stand your ground" claim. And if a suspect is arrested and charged, a judge can throw out the case well before trial based on a self-defense claim.
That happened Wednesday in an unrelated case. A Miami judge dismissed a second-degree murder case, citing the Stand Your Ground law and ruling that 25-year-old Greyston Garcia's testimony about self-defense was credible. The Miami Herald reported that Garcia was charged after chasing down and stabbing to death a 26-year-old suspected burglar in January.
Still, it's not enough for Zimmerman or anyone involved in a confrontation to simply claim innocence based on no duty to retreat, said Fordham University law professor Nicholas Johnson. "By the Florida law, he is not relieved of the traditional and basic requirement of showing that he fairly perceived an imminent deadly threat," Johnson said.
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