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Death of Florida teen sparks outrage, soul-searching on race, profiling and discrimination

The shooting death of a 17-year old teen has drawn national attention to the central Florida community of Sanford. Lynn Hatter reports Trayvon Martin was killed in February by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman while walking in the neighborhood where his father's girlfriend lives. Now state and federal officials are looking for answers, and the nation is having a conversation about race, profiling, and a Florida law that critics say is at the center of the case.

It starts with a phone call:

Zimmerman: “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about."

Operator: "Is he white, black or Hispanic?"

Zimmerman: “He looks black.”

It’s a rainy day in February as 28-year-old George Zimmerman patrols his housing community—the Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, Florida. It’s a suburb about 20 minutes from Orlando. As Zimmerman keeps watch, he spots someone who looks out-of-place. He shares his growing alarm with the local 911 dispatcher.

Zimmerman: "Yep. He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what he’s deal is…you have to get an officer over here…."

Operator:  "Yes. We’ve got someone on the way."

Zimmerman: okay. (sigh) these ---holes always get away.”

Only minutes after this call, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is dead, killed by a gunshot to the chest. He was carrying skittles and ice tea. A month after the shooting, the Sanford Police have not arrested Zimmerman and he has not been charged with a crime. Zimmerman says he shot in self-defense.

The case has sparked protests across the country, like this one in Tallahassee with all asking a similar  question: How can Zimmerman can claim self-defense for shooting an unarmed teenager? At the center of the dispute is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Law, which allows people to use force to defend themselves if they’re under attack. Zimmerman says he was. But the 911 calls seem to tell a different story:

Zimmerman:  “--it, he’s running…"(car door opens)

Operator: "Okay, which way is he running?"

Zimmerman: "Toward the back entrance..."(whispers something unintelligible…)

operator: "Are you following him?"

Zimmerman: "Yes."

Operator: "Okay. We don’t need you to do that."

Zimmerman: "Okay."

Operator: "And what’s your name?"

Zimmerman: “George”.

Operator: “Okay George, and your last name?"

  Zimmerman: “Zimmerman.”

The recording suggests Zimmerman pursues Martin as the teen tries to run away, and despite the operator telling him not to. The law’s sponsor, Republican Representative Dennis Baxley says the law was meant to let people defend themselves if they are in danger of serious bodily harm or death . He blasts the way the law being interpreted, saying it was NEVER meant to cover a person who acts as an aggressor.

 “The problem is not the Castle Doctrine. The problem is you’ve got a situation where the person was pursuing and confronting. And there’s nothing in the statute that provides for that.”

Since Florida passed “Stand Your Ground” the number of justifiable homicides has increased.  But Criminal defense attorney Craig Brown says the law doesn’t apply in the Trayvon Martin case. He says Zimmerman can try to claim self-defense, but he can’t claim it under Florida’s Stand your Ground Law.

 “That is not what stand your ground is about. Stand your Ground needs to be heard before a judge. But before you get there, an arrest should have been made. So here, we’re skipping part of the process. He [Zimmerman] created any risk of harm. If anybody had the right to stand his ground, it would have been Trayvon Martin in this case.”

But even Governor Rick Scott says the law deserves a second look.

Sound- “It’s an unfair law…but I think every time we see something like that we have to review and make sure we’re not giving people the opportunity to use a law unfairly. No one wants something to happen to a young man like that.”

The case has been shrouded in allegations of racism and discrimination, from local rallies, to national media.  For weeks, pressure has been building on the Sanford police and the state attorney’s office for Zimmerman to be charged. The relationship between the city’s law enforcement and the community is strained. State Senator Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat, says racial tension is not new to Sanford.

“The police have a history of stopping black folks, and taking their finger prints or searching their cars without permission. You either let them take your fingerprints or they threaten to take you to jail.”

The delayed action by Sanford’s police department and the state attorney’s office has prompted a federal investigation into whether their response, or lack thereof, constitutes a civil rights violation. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has now gotten involved. And a grand jury will meet in April to determine whether there is enough evidence to charge Zimmerman with a crime. Siplin has been pushing for an independent prosecutor.

“So, in an effort to make sure that this trial, when it does occur—everything is above board.”

Governor Rick Scott has appointed a new prosecutor and named a task force to study the “Stand Your Ground” Law. The Sanford city commission has issued a vote of no-confidence in its police chief and he has temporarily stepped down. A bi-partisan coalition of state lawmakers say they’re going on a fact-finding mission to Sanford to investigate the claims of racism. And Trayvon Martin’s family says they’ll continue to keep the pressure on until there is some action in the case.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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