TOPICS > Politics

Killing of Fla. Teen Sheds Light on State’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law

March 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After the release of 911 calls, demonstrators gathered in Sanford, Fla. Monday to demand the arrest of the neighborhood watch member who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Ray Suarez and The Miami Herald's Frances Robles discuss why a Florida law could make filing charges against the shooter more difficult.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The death of a teenager in Florida and the lack of an arrest for the man who shot him has provoked anger and captured more attention in light of 911 calls released this past weekend.

Ray Suarez has our report.

RAY SUAREZ: Protesters gathered again today outside the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Fla., just north of Orlando. It was the latest local outcry over the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, a death that gained national attention.

On Feb. 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin left a home in a gated community where he and his father were visiting family. He was walking to a convenience store, but he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman, who’s white and Hispanic. The 28-year-old Zimmerman says he acted in self defense.

But Sanford police found Martin lying face down unarmed. And, last Friday, they released 911 calls from the shooting.

First, Zimmerman spots Martin and calls police.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, Florida: There’s a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.

RAY SUAREZ: Then he pursues the youth, ignoring a dispatcher’s warning.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: They always get away.

911 OPERATOR: Are you following him?

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: Yes.

911 OPERATOR: Okay. We don’t need you to do that.

RAY SUAREZ: Nine-one-one calls from eyewitnesses tell the rest.

In one, the sound of a struggle can be heard.

911 OPERATOR: And is it a male or female?

WOMAN: It sounds like a male.

911 OPERATOR: And you don’t know why?

WOMAN: I don’t know why. I think they’re yelling. Just — there’s gunshots.

911 OPERATOR: And you can hear somebody yelling for help?

MAN: I’m pretty sure the guy is dead out here.

RAY SUAREZ: So far, Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime, and the police maintain they cannot act without probable cause. But that decision has fueled racial tensions.

MAN: Can you justify that shooting?

RAY SUAREZ: Martin’s parents have asked the FBI to investigate. They say their son was targeted because of the color of his skin. And they say the police are protecting the killer.

TRACY MARTIN, father of victim: I don’t think he would have even been followed if he was a white kid.

SABRINA FULTON, mother of victim: And I just don’t understand why. I don’t understand why the police department hasn’t arrested him.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, it’s been revealed that Zimmerman had called police numerous times to report other incidents, mostly false alarms. And some eyewitnesses dispute his claim of self-defense in the Martin killing.

MARY CUTCHER, eyewitness: I heard the crying. It was a little boy. As soon as the gun went off, the crying stopped.

RAY SUAREZ: The case has also raised questions about Florida’s so-called ‘Stand Your Ground’ law, which allows the use of deadly force if an individual has a reasonable fear of being killed or seriously injured.

More now about this story from Frances Robles. She has been covering it for The Miami Herald.

And, Frances, is pressure increasing now on local politicians and law enforcement to respond now that we’re almost — well, two weeks since the shooting?

FRANCES ROBLES, The Miami Herald: More than two weeks. It was Feb. 26.

Absolutely. I mean, if Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson show up on your doorstep, that’s pressure. And the fact of the matter is that the police were resisting releasing those 911 tapes. And after pressure from lawmakers and all this national attention, they finally did Friday night.

So I think that shows that there’s a key strategy in all of this by the attorneys to keep the pressure on, to keep the pressure on, and hope that they can get at least some criminal charges filed.

RAY SUAREZ: Does a local police investigation continue? Because, earlier in this story, it sounded like they thought they were done.

FRANCES ROBLES: I think they do think they’re done. They forwarded to it the state attorney’s office.

And what the police chief told me is, if there’s something that the state attorney’s office asks us to do, we will do it. But they’ve canvassed the neighborhood. They’ve tested the physical evidence. And they’ve turned everything over. And it’s in the state attorney’s office hands.

RAY SUAREZ: How has the release of the 911 calls changed the way the people understand this story?

FRANCES ROBLES: I think it made it much worse.

It’s interesting, because the chief really believed that everything was going to go away, that everything was going to be alleviated once everyone heard the 911 calls. And I think just the opposite happened. There was a few things that took place.

The witnesses who had said, wait a second, that’s not what I heard, I heard screaming and then a shot, and then the screaming stopped abruptly, which made me think that this boy was in fear for his life, and then the 911 tapes came out and it sounded just like what they said.

And so everyone is saying, well, wait a second, how come — I told you this thing. These tapes show exactly what I said. How come this guy didn’t get charged?

And that really is going to amp things up and amp things up. The other thing about the tapes that is really getting — complicate everything is that there’s a point in one of the tapes that there’s a loud sound that the attorneys are taking to be a second shot. I actually should say a first shot, the first shot and perhaps a warning shot.

I’ll be honest with you, Ray. When I hear it, I don’t hear that as a shot. I hear it as maybe that is when he falls to the ground or something of that nature. So then it just opens up all this speculation of whether there was a warning shot that would really set the stage for calling this murder.

RAY SUAREZ: Your reporting has offered us a fuller portrait I think of George Zimmerman himself, who has been widely called a neighborhood watch volunteer.

But to hear some of the people in the local community tell it, he kind of was the neighborhood watch.

FRANCES ROBLES: My sense so far is that he was a member of a watch committee of one. I could be wrong. Maybe there’ll be more people who will come forward to say that they were also doing nightly patrols, but I don’t think so.

What people are telling me is that George Zimmerman took it upon himself to go out every night. He had a dog. So that made it a little easier to kind of just walk around in circles with his dog and keeping an eye on things. He kept an eye on open windows, on open garages. If there was a person that he didn’t recognize who was standing around, he would say, hey, what are you doing here, or he would call the homeowner and say there’s someone staring at your house. You better come check it out.

And I want to be honest about something as well. The people that I met who met him, who interacted with him, they liked him. They thought he was perfectly normal. They didn’t think there was anything weird about him. One guy said to me, he didn’t show up at the homeowners association with a bandana around his neck and a bowie knife in his bag.

And I thought that was an interesting point. But if you look at the track record, you look at his arrest record, you look at different police reports, there’s no question that at the very least he’s a busybody. He will go chasing after somebody if he thinks they committed a crime. He went after someone in the supermarket once.

And so you see that over and over again with this man. And, this time, it got him into a big heap of trouble.

RAY SUAREZ: This incident has brought new attention to Florida’s stand your ground law, which I understand had already had some controversy around it at the time that it was debated and passed.

It says in part a person is justified in the use of deadly force and doesn’t have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or harm.

Is this getting a second look now?

FRANCES ROBLES: We will see. I mean, people were real proud of that law when they passed it.

It’s been a real problem here. One of the things — one of the types of things that happens quite a bit is, for example, you’ll have a drug dealer shooting at another drug dealer, that other drug dealer shooting back, missing the first drug dealer, hitting the 3-year-old on the corner.

And then, when it comes time to file criminal charges, nobody gets in trouble, because drug dealer one didn’t kill the 3-year-old, and drug dealer two was legitimately defending himself. So this happens over and over again, where people are not getting — they’re either getting — not getting charged or they’re getting acquitted on cases where people are getting killed.

And everybody says, wait a second. Well, where is the justice here?

RAY SUAREZ: What happens next? When are the next round of demonstrations? You said some pretty big names are coming down.

FRANCES ROBLES: Well, there was a demonstration today by a group of students. I want to say it’s Al Sharpton on Thursday at a church. I’m not sure when Jesse Jackson’s coming.

And there’s a televangelist who was there live week who is coming back March 26. And he said he — quote — “will shut Florida down.” I mean he is calling for busloads of people to come. And he wants everybody to come having a little bag of Skittles in their hands, because that’s the candy that Trayvon Martin had.

And so they’re not going to let up. They’re really not. So we will see what happens. The police chief told me that he can’t wait for the state attorney’s office to make a decision. And he’s hoping that he will do it, that the state attorney will do it, but with a grand jury, so, that way, take it out of law enforcement’s hands, put it in the hands of the public, of regular citizens, and so that you can offer some credibility, because unfortunately there have been enough little inconsistencies along the way in this case that law enforcement has lost all credibility.

RAY SUAREZ: Frances Robles of The Miami Herald, thanks for joining us.

FRANCES ROBLES: Thanks for having me, Ray.