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Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr., resigns in response to the handling of the Trayvon Martin shooting, during a news conference in Sanford, Florida, Thursday, March 22, 2012. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)
Friday, March 23, 2012

Embattled Fla. police chief steps down temporarily

SANFORD, Fla. – The police chief and prosecutor who have been bitterly criticized for not arresting a neighborhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager both left the case Thursday, with the chief saying that he is temporarily leaving his job to let passions cool.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s decision came less than a day after city commissioners gave him a “no confidence” vote, and after a couple of weeks of protests and uproar on social media websites. Lee has said evidence in the case supported George Zimmerman’s claim that the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was self-defense.

“I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to a city which has been in turmoil for several weeks,” Lee said.

About three hours later, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the local state attorney, Norman Wolfinger, had recused himself from the case. In a letter to Scott, Wolfinger said that while he thought he could fairly oversee any prosecution that develops in the case, his recusal was aimed at “toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation.” Scott appointed Angela B. Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take over the case.

Scott also appointed a task force led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to conduct hearings on the case and to make recommendations for any changes to state law or procedures. Carroll is African-American.

Martin was returning from a trip to a convenience store when Zimmerman started following him, telling police dispatchers he looked suspicious. At some point, the two got into a fight and Zimmerman pulled out his gun. Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him after he had given up on chasing the teenager and was returning to his sport utility vehicle.

The shooting ignited racial tensions in this Orlando suburb. Civil rights groups have held rallies in Florida and New York, saying the shooting was unjustified.

The police chief continued Thursday to stand behind his agency’s investigation.

“As a former homicide investigator, a career law enforcement officer and a father, I am keenly aware of the emotions associated with this tragic death of a child. I’m also aware that my role as a leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation,” Lee said.

It wasn’t immediately how long the police chief would step aside. Martin’s parents said that wasn’t enough, and that Zimmerman should be taken into custody.

“We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son,” Martin’s father, Tracy, said to fiery crowd of about 1,000 supporters in downtown Sanford.

Some people believed the police chief should step down for good.

“If they wanted to defuse a potential powder keg, he needed to resign,” said pastor Eugene Walton, 58, who was born and raised in Sanford. “His inaction speaks loudly to the black community.”

News of the police chief’s decision to step aside spread quickly among the protesters, many of whom showed up more than two hours before the start of the rally. They chanted “The chief is gone. Zimmerman is next.”

Some carried signs that said: “100 years of lynching, justifiable homicide. Same thing.” Others sold T-shirts that read: “Arrest Zimmerman.”

“It’s the norm around here, where anything involving black culture, they want to wipe their hands of it,” said Shella Moore, who is black and grew up in Sanford.

The Justice Department and FBI have opened a civil rights investigation, and the local prosecutor has convened a grand jury April 10 to determine whether to charge Zimmerman.

Before the rally, Martin’s parents met with the local U.S. attorney, the deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in Washington and the head of the FBI’s Tampa office to discuss the investigation.

“We listened carefully to the concerns of the family and their representatives,” Special Agent Dave Couvertier, an FBI spokesman, said in a statement. “We continue to extend our deepest condolences to Trayvon’s family for their loss.”