Trayvon Martin: Justice Department to investigate fatal shooting of unarmed Florida teen

Emergency Scream-out (cuz speaking just isn’t enuf) for Trayvon Martin and Ramarley Graham Monday, March 26, 12-1 p.m., Hall of Injustice, 850 Bryant St., San Francisco, in solidarity with families and advocates in Florida who will be holding a rally for Trayvon Martin on the same day; speakers in S.F. include Denika Chapman, Mesha Irizarry, Lisa ‘Tiny’ Garcia, the welfareQUEENs and Poetas POBREs de POOR Magazine, which is sponsoring the event with the Idriss Stelley Foundation

This hour-long show, broadcast March 20 on 1,024 TV and radio stations around the country, is a special on Trayvon Martin. The portion devoted to his story begins 12 minutes in.

by Trymaine Lee

The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have opened an investigation into the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed last month by a Neighborhood Watch captain in an Orlando suburb.

The department will “conduct a thorough and independent review of all evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” according to a statement late Monday.

The announcement comes as the drumbeat around the case continues to grow, becoming national news and shining a brighter media spotlight on the city of Sanford, where the killing occurred, and its police department, which handled the initial investigation that so far has failed to bring charges.

Martin, 17, was shot to death on Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch captain who told police he fired in self-defense. Zimmerman confronted the teen after calling 911 and reporting Martin as a “suspicious person.” Though a dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the teen, Zimmerman confronted him nevertheless, police said. Martin died from a gunshot wound to the chest.

Police questioned Zimmerman and released him without charges. Zimmerman was licensed to carry a gun and police said they found no evidence to contradict his self-defense claim.

Attorneys for Martin’s family have said the family has no faith in the the Sanford police investigation and have called for an independent investigation.

The Justice Department statement said it also would provide assistance to Florida officials. The Seminole County State Attorney’s Office recently took over the case from local police. The state attorney will soon decide whether to bring charges against Zimmerman.

With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law, the Justice Department statement said.

Earlier on Monday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, calling on the agency to “fully investigate” Martin’s death.

“The circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin have caused significant concerns within the Sanford community and the state,’’ Scott wrote to Bailey. “I understand an investigation was initiated by the Sanford Police Department and referred to the 18th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office. I believe it is appropriate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement provide any assistance necessary to fully investigate this matter.”

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement Monday afternoon that he was “outraged by the way in which this case has been handled by the Sanford Police Department in Florida.”

“Those who are meant to protect us and our children have blatantly turned their backs on fairness and justice,” Cleaver, D-Mo., said. “We urge the Department of Justice to immediately and thoroughly investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin as a hate crime. This case compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice.”

The White House also commented on the Martin case during a press briefing. “The White House is aware of the incident,” press secretary Jay Carney said. He added: “We’re not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter.”

Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., called for Justice Department intervention, saying she doesn’t “have the same kind of confidence in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement or the governor’s office or the State Attorney’s Office.”

She added: “I’m not law enforcement, but I absolutely think [Zimmerman] should have been arrested.”

Trayvon Martin’s family calls for arrest of man who police say confessed to shooting

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot and killed in a gated community in Florida late last month by a white Neighborhood Watch captain, according to police. But the watch captain, George Zimmerman – a 28-year-old college student who has admitted to police that he shot the young man – still walks free. And Martin’s family is pleading for answers and demanding justice.

At this point there are more questions than answers in the young man’s death, but this much is known: Martin was packing little more than a bag of candy and a canned iced tea on the night he was killed.

“He had a gun, and Trayvon had Skittles,” Benjamin Crump, a family attorney, told The Huffington Post.

Martin, 17, a high school junior who lived with his mother in Miami, was visiting his father and stepmother at their home in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, on the weekend of Feb. 26. During halftime of the NBA All-Star Game, Martin’s family said he walked to a nearby convenience store to get some candy for his younger brother. On his way back home, according to reports, he caught the attention of George Zimmerman, a self-appointed captain of The Retreat at Twin Lakes Neighborhood Watch.

Zimmerman, armed with a 9mm handgun, trailed the boy in his car. At some point, Zimmerman called 911, telling the operator there was a “suspicious person in the area,” according to a police report acquired by HuffPost.

Zimmerman told the police that Martin noticed that he was being followed and asked, “What’s your problem?”

That’s when a physical confrontation ensued, said Chief Bill Lee of the Sanford Police Department. And moments later, neighbors said they heard gunfire. Martin was shot.

“He (Zimmerman) felt the need to defend himself,” Lee said. “I don’t think it was his intent to go and shoot somebody” that night.

The Sanford police arrived and found Martin lying face down on a patch of grass about 70 feet from his family’s home, a pack of candy in one pocket and an iced tea in the other.

“What happened between him being confronted, up to the point where he got shot, nobody knows but him and that guy,” Tracy Martin, the boy’s father, told HuffPost. “I’m looking for justice for my family. I want answers but I don’t have any to give – not for his mother, his brothers or sisters. We don’t have nothing, but we want answers.”

Crump, the family’s attorney, described Zimmerman as a “loose cannon” and questioned why any Neighborhood Watchman would be carrying a loaded gun. At his request, law enforcement authorities have turned over recordings of the call to 911 that Zimmerman made the night of the shooting.

The tapes have been posted online by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

Crump said the self-defense claims don’t make sense in the context of this shooting. Martin, unarmed, was 140 pounds, nearly 100 pounds less than Zimmerman, he said.

Crump said the family is demanding that the Sanford police arrest Zimmerman, and that the Seminole County State Attorney’s Office review the case and press charges. That review has begun.

“They say they are still investigating,” Crump said. “I’m not sure what there is to investigate. What’s suspicious about this kid? That’s what the family is crying out, that our kid is like any other kid.”

Meanwhile, a heartbroken father struggles to deal with the weight of his son’s death. He tells the story of his son’s heroics at age 9, when he pulled his father from a burning kitchen, and of his love of sports and horseback riding and his dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic.

“Right now we’re all on pins and needles,” Tracy Martin said. “When I asked the police why there’s been no arrest, they told me they respected [Zimmerman’s] background, that he studied criminal justice for four years and that he was squeaky clean.”

He continued: “My question to them was, did they run my child’s background check? They said yes. I asked them what they came up with, and they said nothing. So I asked if Zimmerman having a clean record, did that give him the right to shoot and kill an unarmed kid?”

It has since been learned that Zimmerman was arrested in 2005 on charges of resisting arrest. The charges in that case were dropped, according to county clerk records.

In the “Committee News” section of last month’s issue of the gated community’s newsletter, “Retreat Reflections,” the Neighborhood Watch Committee asked for additional volunteers and warned: “Please keep your eyes open” and “If you see something suspicious or out of place, report it!”

For more information, it said, call George Zimmerman.

“It is certainly and absolutely a tragedy, especially for the Martin family,” Chief Lee said. “No one expects their teenage son to go the store and never come back.”

Lee is “comfortable that his investigators were fair and thorough,” according to the Miami Herald. “From the start,” however, the Herald reports, “Trayvon’s family accused Sanford police of molding the investigation to fit Zimmerman’s account. Several witnesses said they heard cries that sounded like a boy wailing – howling silenced by the crack of gunfire – and were shocked to hear police later portray the cries as Zimmerman’s. One witness said police ignored her repeated phone calls.”

ABC News reports that an “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.”

“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.”

Trymaine Lee, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was a reporter for the New York Times, where he covered the Harlem beat, and is now a senior reporter covering national stories that impact the Black community at the Huffington Post, where his stories on Trayvon Martin first appeared, here, here and here. He can be reached at trymaine.lee@huffingtonpost.com. Bay View staff contributed to this story.

Editors note: Events in solidarity with Trayvon Martin across the country are listed at http://dreadtimes.com/m/news/view/17-y-o-Murdered-by-Neighborhood-Watch.