Police have turned over the investigation into last month's killing of Trayvon Martin, 17, to the Seminole County State Attorney’s Office.
The state of Florida will now determine if George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain from Sanford, Fla., will be charged in his death.
According to the Sanford Police Department, Zimmerman admitted that he shot Martin Feb. 26, as the teenager walked from a convenience store back to the gated community where his father lived. Zimmerman, the captain of the neighborhood watch, was patrolling and called 911 to report a suspicious person, police said. He was told to stand down and wait for police, according to officials but instead, Zimmerman followed the teenager, got into a physical altercation and ended up shooting him.
Zimmerman claimed the shooting was self-defense, and police said they have little evidence to refute his claims. Next, the state attorney will determine if Zimmerman’s burden of self-defense has been reached.
“State Attorney Norm Wolfinger recognizes that Trayvon Martin and his family, interested persons, and the public-at-large are entitled to no less than a thorough, deliberate and just review of the information provided, along with any other evidence that may or may not be developed in the course of the review process,” a statement released from the State Attorney’s Offices Tuesday evening said. “We intend to honor that commitment.”
The shift from local to state officials comes amid suspicion about the department's investigating techniques, according to reports. The case outraged many residents of Sanford, which is about 20 miles north of Orlando, particularly those in the African American community who have suggested a history of strained relations between the police department and blacks.
Today, questions about police conduct during the investigation surfaced. ABC News reported that that police led one witness' testimony to support Zimmerman’s self-defense claims.
Witnesses told ABC News they heard Zimmerman pronounce aloud to the breathless residents watching the violence unfold "it was self-defense," and place the gun on the ground.
But after the shooting, a source inside the police department told ABC News that a narcotics detective and not a homicide detective first approached Zimmerman. The detective peppered Zimmerman with questions, the source said, rather than allow Zimmerman to tell his story. Questions can lead a witness, the source said.
Another officer corrected a witness after she told him that she heard the teen cry for help.
The officer told the witness, a long-time teacher, it was Zimmerman who cried for help, said the witness. ABC News has spoken to the teacher and she confirmed that the officer corrected her when she said she heard the teenager shout for help.
The police initially told Martin’s family that Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense and that his record was “squeaky-clean.” During a press conference on Monday, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee echoed that his investigators were unaware of Zimmerman’s prior arrests.
But Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 on charges of resisting arrest. The charges in that case were dropped, according to county clerk records.
Members of the homeowner's association of The Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community, where the shooting occurred, told HuffPost that residents had made several complaints to police and the association about Zimmerman's aggressive tactics.
Benjamin Crump, the Martin family’s attorney, said the self-defense claims don’t make sense in the context of this shooting. When police arrived at the scene the night of the shooting, Martin had a bag of candy and canned iced tea, said police. Also, Martin was 140 lbs., nearly 100 lbs. less than Zimmerman, said Crump.
Crump filed a public records lawsuit to get the 911 recordings for the night of the shooting. Crump said people who have heard the tapes said Zimmerman, who is white, made a comment about Martin’s race during the call and that he had no intention of letting the youth get away because, “they always get away.” Others outlets have reported the use of an expletive. Martin is black.
The shooting has highlighted long-simmering tensions between Sanford’s black community and the police.
“There has been tension between the black community and the police for a long time,” said Turner Clayton, the president of the local NAACP. “It’s hard to swallow,” he said. "The police department claimed that they didn’t have enough probable cause, and that all the evidence seems to point to self defense. Of course, we don’t believe that for a minute."
Calls and emails to Lee were not immediately returned on Tuesday evening.
Just how long the next phase of the case will take is unclear. A spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office said she has seen murder, homicide and manslaughter cases take upward of a couple years to be resolved.
The office's statement released today said the process is subject to many factors, and that “setting a specific completion date at this time would be mere speculation.” Ultimately, its decisions will be “based on the law and the evidence,” it said.
The evidence it will use to decide will be provided by the Sanford Police Department. Lee has repeatedly said that his officers have found no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s claims of self-defense.
“In this case, Mr. Zimmerman has made the statement of self-defense," Lee said during Monday’s press conference. "Until we can establish probable cause to dispute that, we don’t have the grounds to arrest him.”
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