Trayvon Martin death: Sanford police chief steps down temporarily

Bill Lee's announcement that he will stand aside for now comes as anger builds over failure to arrest George Zimmerman

The Florida police chief in charge of the investigation into the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin has stepped down from his post "temporarily".

Martin's father, Tracy, described Bill Lee's decision to step aside as Sanford police chief as "nothing" and said: "We want an arrest, we want a conviction, we want justice for our son."

Lee's announcement came after a vote of no confidence in the Sanford police department by the city commission, and follows demands from civil rights leaders that he resign over the handling of Martin's killing. Nearly a month after Martin's death, no arrests have been made, despite George Zimmerman admitting to the killing.

At a brief press conference in Sanford on Thursday afternoon, Lee said that his presence had become a "distraction from the investigation".

"Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily relieve myself from the position as police chief for the city of Sanford," he said.

His announcement was greeted with applause.

Norton Bonaparte, Sanford's city manager, said steps were being taken to ensure justice will prevail. "What the city wants more than anything for the family of Trayvon Martin is justice."

Lee's announcement came as new details emerged about the shooting and the scene which confronted officers when they arrived.

The initial police report, published along with other documents by the Sanford city council, records that Zimmerman, Martin's killer, was bleeding from the back of the head and nose. Police noted at the time Zimmerman's back was wet and covered in grass, as if he had been lying on his back.

The self-styled neighbourhood watch volunteer shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old on February 26 as he returned to the home of his father's girlfriend after a trip to the local convenience store.

Zimmerman, 28, cited Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, which authorises the use of lethal force in certain situations.

According to the police report, one of the first police officers who was on the scene handcuffed Zimmerman and removed his gun, a Kel Tek 9mm PF9 semi-automatic handgun and holster. The officer noted: "While I was in such close contact with Zimmerman, I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered with grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and the back of his head."

Among the critics of the police investigation are two witnesses who say they saw Zimmerman straddle Martin the night he was shot. Mary Cutcher and her roommate, Selma Mora Lamilla, told CNN that despite repeated calls to police, they have not been interviewed.

The key to any prosecution of Zimmerman, according to lawyers, will be forensic evidence. However, although the police report says police tape was put up and a crime scene contamination log taken after the shooting, doubts remain over the extent of forensic evidence secured from the scene.

Questions have already been raised by the family about the failure to carry out drug and alcohol tests on Zimmerman, although they were done on Martin after his death.

Benjamin Crump, lawyer for the Martin family, told the Guardian: "We're not aware of any forensics that were done at the scene.

"We know first-hand that this was not a thorough investigation from the beginning. They didn't even do a background check on the shooter – but they did a background check on Trayvon Martin, the dead black kid on the ground."

Crump did not know whether a post-mortem had been done on Martin. He was not aware of any drugs or alcohol found in Martin's body.

"We haven't seen any evidence of that other than hearsay," Crump said. "However, I would say this: if there was an altercation we know that Zimmerman started it because he ignored the police instructions and pursued him [Martin] even though they told him not to."

He said that he had three independent witnesses who contradicted Zimmerman's account of crying out for help.

"It was the kid crying for help, and, furthermore, you can hear with your own ears – it doesn't sound like Zimmerman at all. And everyone says that was Trayvon's voice calling out for help."

Sergeant David Morgenstern, a spokesman for Sanford Police, said that an autopsy was carried out on Trayvon Martin by a Volusia county medical examiner. He said Martin was checked for drugs and alcohol, which was a "routine part of the autopsy".

He said the investigation recovered Zimmerman's clothes from the night of the shooting and that they had custody of the gun. He confirmed that one shot had been fired.

He said he did not believe that Zimmerman had been tested for drugs or alcohol.

Morgenstern said he was unable to discuss the details of an ongoing investigation, but said, "I know they are going to do a complete and thorough check of the weapon."

When asked the whereabout of Zimmerman, he said that he was co-operating with the investigation. He added: "Investigators know how to get in touch with him in case they need to contact him."

He said the police stood by their investigation.

"The wheels of justice turn slowly unfortunately. This is the system we have in place in this country. We have to wait for the results of the grand jury."

Reports have also emerged that the patrol sergeant, Anthony Raimondo, in charge of the scene the night of Martin's shooting, was involved in another controversial case.

Justin Collinson, the son of a police officer, attacked a homeless man in 2010, but was not immediately arrested, even when a video emerged, according to WFTV. The station reported that Raimondo was the officer in charge the night of the attack.

When contacted by the Guardian about this report, the Sanford police department were unavailable for comment.

As public confidence in the local police approached rock bottom, the focus is shifting towards the investigations by the US justice department's civil rights department and the state attorney in Seminole.

Lawyers at the justice department have said that it would be a difficult case to prosecute under federal law. Civil rights law protects against "hate crimes" or actions by police officers, but officials speaking anonymously to the Washington Post said Martin's shooting may not have either of those elements.

The grand jury, however, called by the state attorney, has the power to indict Zimmerman and lawyers expect that to happen.

The architects of Florida's "stand your ground" law have said Martin's killer should probably be arrested and does not deserve immunity under the statute.


Karen McVeigh in New York and Amy Green in Sanford

The GuardianTramp

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