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Pressure Mounts After Neighborhood Watch Shooting


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the Obama campaign calls its new 17 minute video a documentary. Critics say it's an infomercial. The Barber Shop guys give us their take in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to turn to a story out of Florida. The recent fatal shooting of an African-American teenager by a Community Watch volunteer is drawing attention across the country. Trayvon Martin - and he is no relation to me - as I understand it, was walking back to his father's house in a gated community just outside of Orlando, Florida.

That's where George Zimmerman reportedly spotted him and made a 911 call to report a suspicious person. Officials say Zimmerman was told to stand down and wait for the police to arrive, but he apparently got out of his car and followed the teenager and, according to Zimmerman, the two got into a physical altercation and he says he shot Martin in self-defense.

Authorities found no weapons on Martin's body and his family says he was harmless, but the Sanford Police Department has not filed charges and has turned the case over to state attorneys.

Here to tell us more about this story is Frances Robles. She is a reporter for the Miami Herald and she's been covering this story. Welcome back to the program, Frances. Thanks for joining us.

FRANCES ROBLES: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Is there anything else that's known about the circumstances of this shooting? One thing I note is that George Zimmerman's father, Robert, delivered a letter to the Orlando Sentinel where he says his son did not get out of the car and did not confront the teenager, but the police say that he did. Is there anything else that's in dispute?

ROBLES: He definitely got out of the car because Trayvon was shot outside. He got out of the car because, at some point, when he's calling the operator, the operator tells him, where are you? And he needed to get out of the car to get a sense of an address, of a street sign. Did he follow Trayvon? That's the question. You know, it seems like he must have because they ultimately have an altercation.

I think he's going to argue that either he said something to Trayvon like what are you doing here. Or maybe he said nothing to him at all and the boy kind of jumped him. You know, he was being followed, so there's a sense there that Trayvon may have overreacted because he was afraid because he was being followed.

And then there's a sense that he was racially profiled because the community had been hit hard recently by burglaries and break-ins and things of that nature and there's a real sense from the Community Watch people that it's people that look just like Trayvon that are up to the burglaries.

MARTIN: You mean an African-American teenager?

ROBLES: Right, absolutely. There's a community that's right behind that one where it has a lot of very easy access into this - even though it's a gated community, you can basically walk in on foot. And they're having break-ins, and so how you distinguish the burglars, who people have decided are African-American males because of a few occasions where it was African-American males, and how do you distinguish them between the lots and lots of African-American males who live there?

There's been a lot of talk about this being a predominantly white gated community. Michel, it's not. It's the most racially diverse community I have ever seen in my life. I checked the census records. It's 49 percent white. That means it's 51 percent something else, which is black, which is Latino, which is Asian.

MARTIN: And also to that point, Robert Zimmerman, George Zimmerman's father, in the letter that he delivered to the Orlando Sentinel, also made a point of saying that his son is Latino and comes from a multiracial family, adding a further complication to this case.

But as we said, this case has evoked some very strong feelings, not just locally, but across the country, and I'm sure no one has stronger feelings that Trayvon Martin's parents. They were on CNN this morning and they were asked why they think no charges have been filed yet, and this is Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin.


TRACY MARTIN: I have no idea. It's surprising. It's shocking. It just leaves - it lets me know that justice is just not being served here. All we want is justice for our son.

MARTIN: What are other people in the community saying about this?

ROBLES: Every single person that I've interviewed in the community is having a very hard time understanding why George Zimmerman thought that it was a good idea to carry a gun on neighborhood patrol. Even if you don't think it was racially profiling - so there are white people who don't think it was racial profiling. OK. Fine. But they still think it was a terrible, irresponsible judgment insofar as someone who gave himself authority that he simply did not have.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the death of the teenager Trayvon Martin. He was shot by a Community Watch volunteer near Orlando, Florida. All sides agree on that. What they don't agree on is why it happened and what are the circumstances that led up to that and if this shooting was justified.

Our guest is Frances Robles. She's been covering the story for the Miami Herald. What do we know about George Zimmerman? By the way, there have been reports, particularly on the blogs, that suggest that there had been previous complaints about his behaving overzealously in his self-appointed role as a Community Watch, you know, participant. What are you hearing?

ROBLES: The people that know him say he is a perfectly nice, reasonable person. He's openly interested in security issues of his community, but not in a way that made anybody feel uncomfortable. Nobody met him and thought he was a weirdo. One man that I interviewed said, you know, he did not come to the homeowners association with a bandana around his head and a bowie knife in his pocket. He seemed nice.

One guy that I met a few days ago - African-American - George Zimmerman knocked on his door and said, hi, can I come in? I want to talk to you about the theft issues. And then talked to him. Oh, we're having problems with young black men, etc., etc. So this guy said, you know, he seemed nice. He seemed cool. He seemed like - another person said he seemed like – you would have thought he was an engineer.

I think he did have an issue with the burglaries. I mean, I think he was a little hell bent on keeping strangers out of his complex. And what's a stranger look like, Michel? I don't know.

MARTIN: What are the authorities saying about why the local police have not filed charges?

ROBLES: They feel very strongly that they don't have probable cause. They feel that they would have to sign an arrest affidavit swearing to that they don't believe his version of events. And they believe that the witness statements and the physical evidence matches his version of events.

MARTIN: That he was acting in self-defense?

ROBLES: But if you go and speak to the witnesses - I encourage everybody to look at today's Miami Herald on the Internet - the witnesses feel that some of their statements were distorted and that they just don't feel that it was self-defense, so there's a little contradiction there between what the police say the witnesses said and what the witnesses will tell you if you go ask them yourself.

MARTIN: What are the next steps here, Frances?

ROBLES: It's in the hands of the state's attorney's office. What the police chief told me is that nothing would make him happier for them to start a grand jury investigation. They need to take this out of law enforcement's hands because nothing that the state attorney's office is going to do - short of filing charges today - is going to instill confidence in the community.

This is an area that has a longstanding history of racial tension with the police (unintelligible) friends of the police department and children of the police department not getting criminally charged in racially sensitive cases. They don't trust the authorities here, so that's the next step. The next step is for the state attorneys either make a decision or to move this to the grand jury.

MARTIN: Frances Robles has been covering this emotional story for the Miami Herald and she was kind enough to join us on the phone from Sanford, Florida. Frances Robles, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBLES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.