A tragedy in Florida threatens to cause ethnic tensions following questions over authorities’ handling of an investigation into the shooting death of teenage boy on February 26. Trayvon Martin (17) was shot to death during the early evening hours as he returned from a convenience store with a bag of candy and a cold drink. He had been staying at the home of a female friend of his father where they were watching the NBA All-Star game on television.
It is alleged that George Zimmerman (26), a self-appointed Neighborhood Watch captain, shot Trayvon to death in an act of self-defense. According to Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee, there is no evidence to dispute Zimmerman's claims. "Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don't have the grounds to arrest him," Lee said. Trayvon was unarmed and was carrying $22. Zimmerman, who had a concealed weapons permit, carried a black Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic pistol.
The family filed a lawsuit to demand recordings of the conversation between Zimmerman and the police dispatcher. Police have declined to release the tape until the investigation is concluded. “They are passing the buck,” said attorney Benjamin Crump, who has been retained by the family. “The entire time he was defending Mr. Zimmerman. But we’ll see what will come next.”
Zimmerman spotted Travyon as the teen returned with his purchases, reporting in a telephone call to authorities that he had spotted a male wearing a hood. According to sources who heard Zimmerman's call to a non-emergency police number, he told a dispatcher "these assholes always get away." Zimmerman described the boy as suspicious because he was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and walking slowly in the rain, police later told residents at a community meeting.
A dispatcher told him to wait for a police cruiser, and not leave his vehicle. However, Zimmerman soon exited his vehicle and pursued Trayvon on foot. Running through the gated community, Zimmerman finally confronted the boy. According to reports, a fist fight ensued and that even while Zimmerman outweighed Trayvon by 100 pounds, he was soon on the ground and Trayvon was on top. A witness to the altercation, a 13-year-old boy, saw that the pair had soon separated. The young witness, and others, then heard a cry for help following by the sound of a gunshot.
Police arrived on the scene within a minute. Trayvon was pronounced dead, having received a wound to the chest. According to reports, Zimmerman was armed at the time with a 9mm pistol. According to the police report, Zimmerman was found bleeding from the nose and head. He was seen by the police standing over Trayvon, who was then unresponsive. A police officer overheard him claim that he had called for help and that no one had come help him. Witnesses told ABC News they heard Zimmerman say to residents watching the violence that “it was self-defense," and then placed the pistol on the ground.
The initial handling of the case by the police has raised questions. According to ABC News, a narcotics detective questioned Zimmerman, rather than allowing him to tell his story. Also, another officer corrected a witness after she told him that she heard the teen cry for help.
The family of the slain teen have now sued the Sanford police department and demand that tapes of the associated 911 calls made by witnesses and neighbours be released. The Sanford police department has now handed over the investigation of the crime to the Florida state attorney’s office.
Jesse Jackson, preacher and civil rights activist, says that he plans to go to the community to look into shooting and police response. So too will Al Sharpton, another civil rights activist and firebrand politician. At March 12 press conference, Police Chief Lee appeared to seek community reconciliation while giving assurances that his department wants to reach a fair conclusion. Hecklers were heard to say "a little black boy is dead." The boy’s father, when asked by a television reporter whether he thought a “white” boy would have been shot under the same circumstances, answered “no.”
A vigil was held on March 11 to commemorate Trayvon, who played on his high school football team. Speaking at the Miami Gardens church that Trayvon attended, mother Sybrina Fulton said she thinks Sanford officials are covering up the killing. “I think it’s profiling. They saw this young, black, African-American kid, but he didn’t commit a crime.” She is demanding answers and has called her son's death a "murder."
Police say that Zimmerman, who has been described as white, has received numerous death threats since the incident. Zimmerman, according to reports, was once charged with resisting arrest, but charges were later dropped. Calls by journalists to his home have remained unanswered while his whereabouts are still unknown. Protests by Black Panthers are expected.