As tensions mount over the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch patrolman George Zimmerman, pressure is building on Seminole/Brevard County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger to have him arrested in the killing. Demonstrators are converging on Florida to support the teen’s family and express their frustration over police so far not making an arrest in the case.
Wolfinger has called a grand jury, which will convene on April 10, to investigate the case and determine if Zimmerman should be charged.
“I share in the desire of the family and the community to accurately collect and evaluate all the facts surrounding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. That is why I directed the expeditious review of the investigation which was delivered by the Sanford Police Department,” Wolfinger said in a statement released Tuesday. “As I have previously stated, the public is entitled to no less than a thorough, deliberate, and just review of the facts. We intend to honor that commitment.”
Martin, 17, died after being confronted by Zimmerman, 28, who was suspicious of him even though he was simply returning to a house in a Sanford, Fla., gated community from a nearby convenience store. Despite being told by police dispatchers he did not need to follow Martin, the armed Zimmerman did so; when he confronted him they wrestled and Martin was shot once in the chest, dying at the scene. Zimmerman claimed self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” law and that Martin attacked him. He has not been charged by police.
Watchers of the case say they are puzzled as to why Zimmerman has not been arrested yet. Christopher Leibig, a Washington-based criminal defense attorney, says the details in the killing at the very least make it a homicide. “It’s more than enough evidence,” he says. “All they need is probable cause. Based on the known facts they have enough for manslaughter or murder.”
Since the incident, calls for justice by Martin’s family have echoed as far as Congress, and the actions of the Sanford Police Department have fallen under intense scrutiny. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has said Zimmerman was not arrested because there is no probable cause to dispute Zimmerman’s claim of self defense and turned the case over to Wolfinger. But Lee has been accused of everything from covering up a racial hate crime to taking Zimmerman’s word at simple face value without questioning him or administering a drug or alcohol test.
Demonstrations are growing, expressing outrage over the teen’s death. In a demonstration at a Sanford church on Tuesday, NAACP president Ben Jealous called for Lee’s resignation, accusing him of mishandling the case. Nearly 820,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org demanding Zimmerman’s arrest, and a group of activists want Zimmerman’s concealed weapons permit revoked.
Meanwhile, ABC News reported that Martin’s girlfriend, whose identity has been concealed, says she was speaking to him via cell phone when he was confronted by Zimmerman, contradicting his version of the story. The phone log, which ABC has obtained, shows the conversation took place five minutes before police arrived. Martin’s family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, says the girl “connects the dots” in the case, which he says is murder.
The U.S. Justice Department has said that it will launch its own investigation, but anything they do will not directly result in Zimmerman’s arrest, Leibig said. “All they can do is investigate the case to see if the Sanford Police Department violated Martin’s civil rights by not doing their duty.”
Even though the federal government is limited insofar as how much it can reach into a state case, Leibig said Wolfinger is not restricted. “Prosecutors have extraordinarily wide authority in these cases,” he said. “Presecutorial discretion is essentially limitless and the prosecutor could institute charges and Zimmerman would be arrested.”
But, Leibig added, the delay in what should have been an arrest based on the evidence from 911 tapes is puzzling. “Why they are allowing a national uproar instead of giving statements about what’s going on doesn’t make any sense.”