SANFORD, Fla. – The aftershocks of Trayvon Martin’s killing continued to reverberate Thursday as the embattled police chief who’s been bitterly criticized for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of the unarmed black teenager left the case Thursday.
The shooting has ignited resentment toward the police department in this Orlando suburb. It has sparked a couple of weeks of uproar on social media websites. Civil rights groups have held rallies in Florida and New York, saying the shooting was unjustified.
On Thursday night, thousands at a rally led by civil rights leader Al Sharpton at a downtown Sanford park demanded more be done.
“We cannot allow a precedent when a man can just kill one of us … and then walk out with the murder weapon,” said Sharpton.
Sanford police Chief Bill Lee’s decision to step down temporarily came less than a day after city commissioners gave him a “no confidence” vote. Lee has said evidence in the case supported George Zimmerman’s assertion that he shot 17-year-old Martin on Feb. 26 in 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 created a statewide citizen task force to review Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law.
The governor’s news was welcomed with boisterous cheers by the thousands gathered in the Sanford park to attend the rally with Sharpton. Flanked by Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the celebrity civil rights activist said Lee’s decision to step down temporarily was not enough.
“We didn’t come here for a temporary leave of absence,” Sharpton said. “We came here for permanent justice. Arrest Zimmerman now!”
George Zimmerman, 28, was the neighborhood watch captain at The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a townhouse complex in the small town north of Orlando. A Hispanic former insurance agent with a history of reporting the presence of black men to police, Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin in the chest after calling police saying he saw someone in a hoodie walking too slowly in the rain, peering at houses. After the shooting, he told police he was attacked and fired in self-defense.
The relationship between the boy’s family and police deteriorated from the start. Martin’s family believed the police department deliberately covered up Zimmerman’s past arrest record, portraying him as having a clean record because he had no convictions. The family filed a lawsuit to force the department to release 911 tapes in the incident but felt the department was eager to release information that was favorable to Zimmerman.
Witnesses whose account differed from Zimmerman’s said their calls were not returned, and it was Martin’s dad who discovered a key witness, a girl who was talking to him on the telephone moments before the shooting.
The parents and their attorney, Benjamin Crump, met Thursday afternoon with U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Florida Robert O’Neill, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division Roy Austin Jr. and other representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice.
The agency’s civil rights division, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are reviewing the case.
“First and foremost, we extended and continue to extend our deepest condolences to the family for their loss,” the DOJ said in a statement.
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