SANFORD, Fla. -- Austin McLendon hasn't been the same since that night three Sundays ago when Trayvon Martin was killed.
His mother says he's been arguing with his siblings more than usual. His 8th grade teachers have called home saying that he's become angry and lax in his schoolwork. He seems stressed out, distracted and consumed, they say.
Austin was standing less than 20 yards away from Martin when he was shot on the night of February 26. He didn't see much that night, but says he can't shake the screams for help that he heard or the thunderclap of gunfire that nearly shook him from his shoes.
The screams rattle around in his daydreams, so loud at night that sleep hasn't come easily. And he can't stop asking himself a thousand what-ifs: What if he could have stopped it? What if he had looked "suspicious" that night, and not Martin?
"I picture myself back over where I saw it, and it sticks in the back of my mind," McLendon told HuffPost Black Voices on Saturday afternoon at his family's home. "Sometimes I'll, like, not be listening to the teacher, and I'll daydream or just think off about it. I've been feeling bad for him and his family."
According to police, George Zimmerman, 28, the self-appointed captain of the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood watch, has admitted that he shot and killed Martin, 17, who Zimmerman described as "suspicious" in a 911 call made shortly before the shooting. He told the police that he shot the teen, who had come up from Miami a week or so earlier to visit his father, in self-defense. The police said he was licensed to carry the 9mm pistol he was carrying the night of the shooting. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the killing.
"They still haven't arrested him yet," Austin said, his chin tucked low. "That's pretty much the main thing that's upsetting me."
Few of his friends at school understand why he's so upset.
"Not many middle school kids watch the news," he said.
Meanwhile, Martin's family and a growing legion of supporters across the country have taken to national television news programs, Facebook and Twitter and organized petition drives, rallies and protests calling for Zimmerman's arrest. More than 285,220 people have signed one petition on the Change.org website. Some say the handling of the case comes on the heels of a string of racially charged incidents that have further strained relations between the black community and the police.
Austin's mother, Sheryl Brown, said that the trauma from the night has not been limited to what her son witnessed. It also includes the way she says that the police and some media have twisted his account of the night to fit a self-defense theory, to say that a 13-year-old witness has claimed Zimmerman, and not Martin, was screaming for help. Both Austin and his mother are adamant that the teen could not see who was screaming, but they believe now that it was Martin.
Brown said in hindsight she feels the police investigator on the case attempted to lead her son to provide information that he didn't have. The investigator, she said, would nod yes when asking if it was the man in the T-shirt, who turned out to be Zimmerman, and not the one in the hooded sweatshirt, Martin, who was screaming out for help. And while the police have said that they don't have any evidence to refute Zimmerman's claims of self-defense, the investigators had a different story when they visited her family about a week after the shooting, Brown said.
"That investigator said flat out that we don't think it was self-defense," Brown said, recalling the day the police came to interview Austin. "Several times he said, 'I have kids, and I'm going to tell you something that I don't tell many people.' He looked at me and said, 'You have to read between the lines. There's some stereotyping going on.'"
She continued: "He stood here in my family room telling me that this guy [Zimmerman] is not right and it wasn't self-defense and that they have to prove that it wasn't. He was adamant about that. I don't know if that was to make me less uncomfortable or to make us feel that he was on our side."
In recent days, other witnesses have come forward to say that the police attempted to twist their testimony to support Zimmerman's claims of self-defense or ignored them entirely, including two witnesses who joined the Martin family during a press conference on Friday.
A police spokesman could not be reached immediately for comment. The Sanford Police have said in the past that there is little evidence to refute Zimmerman's claims. But the department has also publicly stated that some witnesses have since contradicted their initial statements to police, which supported the self-defense theory.
Last night the Sanford Police, pushed by city officials, released 911 recordings made the night of the shooting. And Martin's lawyers say that all the evidence to contradict Zimmerman's claims can be heard on the tape. In the background one can hear what seem to be screams or pleas for help. Then a gunshot and silence. Neighbors can be heard sobbing, telling the dispatcher what they heard or saw: mostly the screams, the cries for help and the gunshot that ended it all.
Austin and his sister were among that chorus.
"My brother said someone got shot behind our house," McLendon's older sister told a 911 dispatcher. "I heard something and then my brother ran into the house," she said.
"Is your brother there?" the dispatcher asks.
"He's next to me," she says.
"Okay, can you give him the phone?"
Austin comes on the line: "I saw a man laying on the ground that needed help, that was screaming and then I was going to go over there to try and help him, but my dog got off the leash, so I went and got my dog, and then I heard a loud sound and then the screaming stopped."
The dispatcher asks: "Did you see the person get shot? Did you know the person that was shot, or did you see the person that had the gun?"
"No, I just heard a loud sound and then the screaming stopped," Austin replied.
Not long before the call, about 7 p.m., Austin, per usual, was late for his scheduled dog-walking duty.
His mother was headed out the door and then called out to Austin, "Don't forget to walk the dog!"
He said he grabbed the leash and the dog and headed out of the front door. As he started down the sidewalk, he heard yelling from behind the house. He said that he turned down the side-yard to see what was going on.
It was a rainy night, and the clouds hung low, muting the moonlight. For some reason, many of the neighbors had turned off their back porch lights. So he didn't see much, just someone lying on the ground and screaming.
On Saturday afternoon, Austin walked back to the spot just behind his house, pointing a dozen or so yards away from where Martin was killed. He bears a striking resemblance to the dead teenager: about the same height, give or take a few inches, and weighs about 15 to 20 pounds less.
"It's really hard to walk the dog by where it happened," he said. He wondered aloud what could have happened if he had been walking the dog just a little later, or behind the house instead of in front. But most of all he wondered what if he had been the one who piqued Zimmerman's interest. What if he looked suspicious?
"If I was like two years older, that could have happened to me," he said.
BEFORE YOU GO
04/30/2012 3:14 PM EDT
George Zimmerman defense team launches social media campaign.
The defense team for George Zimmerman, the man charged with murdering unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, has launched a new website, Facebook and Twitter account designed to dispute misinformation and provide "a voice for Mr. Zimmerman."
"We understand that it is unusual for a legal defense to maintain a social media presence on behalf of a defendant, but we also acknowledge that this is a very unusual case," Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, wrote on the website, gzlegalcase.com.
O’Mara said that "social media in this day and age cannot be ignored," and that it would be “irresponsible to ignore the robust online conversation” around his client's case.
04/20/2012 3:17 PM EDT
Judge Grants George ZImmerman Bail
A Florida judge has granted bail for George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch captain accused of second-degree murder in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester set Zimmerman's bond at $150,000, but said he would not be released today, pending deliberations about the terms of the release.
The bail hearing featured dramatic testimony from Zimmerman, who took the stand and offered an apology to Martin's parents.
"I wanted to say that I am sorry for the loss of your son," Zimmerman said, adding that he did not know how old Martin was or that he was unarmed.
"I thought he was a little bit younger than I am," he said. "I did not know whether he was armed or not."
04/18/2012 6:23 PM EDT
Judge in case steps down due to concerns over conflict of interest.
The judge who was set to preside over the trial of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin has stepped aside.
Jessica Reckseidler's recusal from the trial comes after Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's attorney, suggested that her husband's job as a partner to Mark NeJame, a CNN legal analyst covering the trial, represented a conflict of interest.
NeJame was initially contacted by Zimmerman's family to represent him, but NeJame suggested O'Mara.
The new judge in the case will be Kenneth R. Lester, Jr., who has presided over several much-covered cases, including ordering the release of a schizophrenic woman from a state mental hospital after she was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting deaths of her parents and sentencing an ax murderer to death after he killed a 71-year-old man. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Lester is popular among attorneys and is known for acting quickly.
The judge who would have been next in line to handle the Zimmerman case after Jessica Reckseidler could not take on the case because he had previously worked with O'Mara, Zimmerman's attorney.
04/18/2012 6:22 PM EDT
Michelle Obama: Martin's death a 'tragedy.'
First lady Michelle Obama says her "heart goes out to the parents" of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager who was fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.
Mrs. Obama says in an interview with NPR that all parents understand "the tragedy of that kind of loss." Martin was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who has claimed self-defense.
The first lady says it's important "not to lose sight of the fact that this is a family that's grieving and there's been a tremendous loss." She says, "we all have to rally around that piece of it."
Police initially didn't charge Zimmerman in the Sanford, Fla., shooting, leading to nationwide protests. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder last week.
04/18/2012 6:18 PM EDT
Scrutiny for Sanford puts cramp on small businesses.
As scores of media personnel and activists descended upon the area, residents and businesses found themselves facing very public scrutiny and a growing fear that the community was harboring a racially hostile environment -- which prompted locals to cut back on their normal routines, including shopping. "There was an air that the community was on the verge of bad activity or violence and that is not the case," Nicholas Mcray, Sanford's director of economic development, said. "There was never any kind of trend of violence, but that was the perception put out by the media."
While it's been weeks since the shooting, the small businesses that make up Sanford's historic downtown continue to suffer, with some businesses seeing up to a 50 percent drop in activity. "A few convenience retailers are seeing a 2 to 3 percent increase, but the downtown area is really taking a hit," Mcray said.
04/18/2012 6:16 PM EDT
ALEC, lobbying group behind Stand Your Ground laws, changes tack.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, the controversial corporate-sponsored lobbying group whose push for "stand your ground" gun laws and voter ID legislation ignited grassroots protests, announced Tuesday that it is getting out of the social policy field to focus on core economic issues.
Corporations associated with ALEC had been under siege from public interest and civil rights groups who demanded they cut ties with ALEC, most recently because of its successful push to pass "stand your ground" legislation in multiple states. Florida's version of that law has been cited as a reason why neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was not initially charged in the deadly shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Several companies -- including Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald's, Kraft and Intuit -- had already distanced themselves from ALEC before Tuesday's surprise announcement.
04/11/2012 8:42 PM EDT
George Zimmerman arrives at jail
The Associated Press is reporting that Zimmerman has arrived at jail.
04/11/2012 7:04 PM EDT
George Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder, in custody
Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey announced that George Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder.
According to CNN, Zimmerman turned himself in and has a new attorney, Mark O'Mara. During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, he former employees announced that they had lost contact with Zimmerman and would no longer be representing him in the case.
If convicted, Zimmerman could face life in prison.
04/11/2012 3:06 PM EDT
Reports: Zimmerman to be charged in Trayvon Martin's death.
A day after George Zimmerman's attorneys stepped down because they had lost contact with him, the special prosecutor in the case will bring charges against him, according to reports.
The Washington Post is reporting that special prosecutor Angela Corey will announce charges against Zimmerman for his role in Trayvon Martin's shooting death. Earlier this week, Corey said she would not convene a grand jury in the case. Under Florida law, only grand juries can issue murder charges, which means that Zimmerman will face lesser charges.
04/10/2012 12:55 PM EDT
Police car shot several times near scene of Martin shooting.
Around 4:30 a.m. this morning, an empty police car near the gated community where Trayvon Martin was shot through with bullets several times. The police in Sanford are investigating the crime.
Sanford's police department has come under withering criticism for its handling of the case. Yesterday, a group of student protesters blocked the entrance to the police headquarters, forcing the department to shut down for several hours.