MIAMI — In a southern town, a man shoots and kills an innocent black youth he thinks looks suspicious. Witnesses report that they heard the high school student screaming for help before he was shot and shot again. The victim was unarmed and simply walking towards his family’s house after buying candy at a 7-11. The local police don’t charge, and even defend, the shooter without any real investigation. Any possibility to enact justice is left to the federal government, spurred on by thousands of angry citizens.
Sound like the 1960s? It’s not.
The Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that they will investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, as local authorities seem to have failed at a proper investigation.
The parents of Martin, the African American youth who was shot to death Feb. 26 in an Orlando suburb by self-described neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, had asked the FBI to step in and investigate the shooting, and others called for investigation by the Justice Department.
“The department [of Justice] will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” the DOJ said in a statement. ” The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident.”
Though there is no question that Zimmerman took the high school student’s life by shooting him in the chest, Zimmerman had no been charged with any crime by the police in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, raising a nationwide public outcry.
Martin was a student at Michael Krop High School in Miami. The youth lived in Miami Gardens and was in Sanford visiting a relative.
“It’s a shame that he’s not getting any justice,” Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, said at a March 16 press conference. “We’re not, as a family, getting any closure,” the elder Martin said. “I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department and there’s no way that I can still trust them in investigating this crime.”
Across the country, many fear that Martin’s “crime,” for which he received a death penalty ordered by neither judge nor jury, was walking while black.
Martin’s family hopes that the federal government will be able to bring justice to what many around this state see as a blatantly racist miscarriage of justice. This comes after weeks of public outcry, across the Internet and across the country. A petition at change.org has garnered more than 400,000 signatures already.
Even Republican Gov. Rick Scott was pushed to action by the outcry: He ordered the FDLE investigation.
Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, who represents much of the area, met with the police chief and other city leaders March 16 to “clarify the situation.” She later sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a federal investigation. She noted that a “history of racial tension” in the community could lend itself to the lack of a thorough local investigation.
“How police immediately concluded that he had a reasonable belief of imminent death or great bodily harm from a boy half his size remains unclear and three witnesses have publicly contradicted this version.”
Zimmerman, who experts say sounded drunk at the time, was never tested for drugs or alcohol, as is standard procedure.
Rep. Brown requested an emergency meeting with Holder or another official, and, in a strange twist, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, on behalf of himself and the city council agreed, sending his own letter to attorney general.
Zimmerman spotted Martin walking towards his relative’s home. Police told him not to follow Martin and to stay in his car. He didn’t listen, and confronted Martin, with whom he apparently provoked a fight. Zimmerman says, however, that he stepped out of his vehicle and that Martin attacked him, causing Zimmerman to fire his semi-automatic handgun. But many point out that this account simply does not fit with the facts of what happened:
There were cries for help. There was a shot, and then another. With that final shot, the pained screaming ceased. Zimmerman was unscathed.
Three separate witnesses said that the pleas for help were from Martin himself. This brings up more questions: If Martin was crying for help — until he was shot — how could he have posed any threat to Zimmerman?
Most of the facts in the case are clear: Martin was unarmed, was in the neighborhood for a legitimate reason, and Zimmerman fired the shots that killed the teen. However, because of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, local police say they are unable to charge Zimmerman. According to the law, anyone has the right to use lethal force — to kill — a person they deem threatening.
All of this makes the case for the federal government much harder to prove. The Justice Department warned, “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 which the law forbids — the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.”
The local NAACP chapter will host a town hall meeting this evening in Sanford.
Photo: Rev. Dames of St. James AME Church leads people in prayer at the Titusville Courthouse, March 18, in Titusville, Fla., where a rally was held demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, black Florida teenager fatally shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Craig Rubadoux/Florida Today/AP