Florida

A teen was shot by a watchman 5 years ago. And the Trayvon Martin case became a cause

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, mother and father of Trayvon Martin, meet with reporters in 2015.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, mother and father of Trayvon Martin, meet with reporters in 2015. Miami Herald File

Five years ago this week, a Miami-Dade teen was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain outside a Central Florida apartment complex. The events that night involved 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and 28-year-old George Zimmerman. Here are several key stories from the Miami Herald archive on the case, which gripped the state and the country with issues of race relations, neighborhood crime, self-defense and profiling of black youth.

THE SHOOTING, February 2012

Trayvon Martin traveled to Sanford on a trip with his father. The teen returned to his Miami home in a body bag.

Martin, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood crime watch captain.

The circumstances of the shooting are still unknown, but George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old man who shot Martin, told police he shot in self-defense.

READ MORE: Five years after his death, a few words about Trayvon

After getting few answers from police, Martin's grieving family has hired an attorney and is publicizing his death on CNN, Good Morning America and other national media outlets.

"Why would any neighborhood watchman be carrying a loaded gun?'' said Benjamin Crump, the family's attorney. "They are just trying to sweep his death under a rug."

Martin's father said the teen went out in a light drizzle around 7 p.m. that Sunday during halftime of the NBA All-Star Game to get snacks from a nearby 7-Eleven. He purchased Skittles candies and an Arizona iced tea for his 13-year-old stepbrother.

On the way back to the gated townhouse community where he was staying, Martin ran into Zimmerman, who was armed, reports said.

Martin was shot once in the chest.

"He had a gun, and Trayvon had Skittles, " Crump said. "We want justice."

Bill Lee, Sanford's police chief, said the case is still under investigation and that he was waiting to finalize it before sending it on to the Seminole County state attorney's office.

"We need to get all the facts and circumstances straight so that we can determine what truly happened, " Lee said.

Crump, who filed a lawsuit Friday to get public records on the shooting, said "the neighborhood watch was supposed to protect him, not kill him."

Here's what happened, according to Lee and Sanford police reports:

Martin, dressed in jeans, a gray hoodie and red and white Air Jordans, was walking back to The Retreat at Twin Lakes townhome community where he was staying when he caught the attention of Zimmerman, who also lives there.

Zimmerman, a criminal justice student at Seminole State College, reported to police a "suspicious person in the area, " and began following the teen in his SUV. A dispatcher told Zimmerman - who had a concealed weapons permit and carried a black Kel Tek 9mm semi-automatic - that a squad car would be dispatched and that police would handle it.

Moments later, several calls were made to 911, telling police two men were fighting and shots were fired.

When officer T. Smith arrived at the scene moments later, he found Martin's body lying face down on the grass about 70 yards from the family's home, bleeding from a chest wound. He had $22, candy and a can of iced tea in his pockets.

Zimmerman gave police a statement that he stepped out of his car and he and Martin fought. He said he was "yelling for someone to help, but no one would help me."

Zimmerman had a bloody nose, wet grass stains on his red jacket and was bleeding from a head wound. Martin was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m.

"We don't know what led up to that fight, '' Lee said.

On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman was initially handcuffed, placed in the back of a squad car and later released, but not before police confiscated his gun.

A day after U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced prosecutors would not charge George Zimmerman with a federal hate crime, Trayvon Martin's parents, held a press conference calling the decision 'very disappointing.'

Trayvon's father Tracy Martin questions why Zimmerman was not taken to jail.

"He said my son was a threat. How was he a threat? I don't know what he could've done to generate that reaction; a 140-pound kid."

Police told the father that Zimmerman had a clean background.

"But did they check my unarmed son's record? No.''

Crump said he believes Martin's death is attributed to racial profiling. Martin was black. Zimmerman is white. The community where they lived has families of all racial backgrounds.

"He was just like any other of those kids there, '' Crump said. "Why Trayvon?'

The Seminole County state attorney's office has not yet received the case from police, spokeswoman Lynn Bumpus-Hooper said.

It is unknown whether Zimmerman has a lawyer. He could not be reached for comment. A listed phone number has been disconnected.

Martin, who lived with his mother in Miami, was a junior at Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School. He was in the middle of serving a one-week suspension from the school. Tracy Martin would not discuss his son's suspension, but said he took Trayvon to the Central Florida town, best known as the auto train stop closest to Orlando, "to disconnect and get his priorities straight."

Lee said the neighborhood watch, which works directly with police, started two months ago after the community was hit with several property crimes. Zimmerman was the leader.

"We encourage residents to report any suspicious activity, to not to put it in their own hands, '' Lee said. "What happened is a tragedy."

Trayvon Martin's funeral was held March 3 in Miami. More than 1,000 people, including classmates and friends, showed up at his viewing.

  The Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford.PEDRO PORTALEl Nuevo Herald File

‘STAND YOUR GROUND’, March 2012

With the worldwide press, citizens and celebrities scrutinizing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, criminal-defense lawyers statewide fear that the widespread publicity will hinder their efforts in front of judges and juries in upcoming self-defense cases.

Sanford police cited the law in not initially arresting neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 28, who fatally shot the 17-year-old Trayvon of Miami Gardens during a scuffle on Feb. 26 in Sanford.

Lawyers in unrelated cases will undoubtedly have to grill potential jurors about the "Trayvon Martin Effect" or the "Trayvon Factor, " said Nellie King, president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"The climate could not be worse for those folks who have been arrested, yet have viable self-defense claims. Florida defense lawyers can only hope that jurists, as well as jurors, tasked with reviewing future Stand Your Ground claims will weigh the case-specific facts before them in an impartial manner against Florida's law, irrespective of the larger issues being debated in this country, " she said.

Florida's 2005 law eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat when confronted by an attacker, while allowing judges - well before a jury trial - to decide whether a defendant is immune from prosecution because he or she acted in self-defense.

Critics, including many police officers, say the law encourages vigilantes to shoot first and ask question later, while some prosecutors think that juries, not judges, should be the ones to decide the self-defense issue.

Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, shot and killed Trayvon, who was black, during a sidewalk scuffle inside a gated housing community just north of Orlando. Amid the outcry and rallies, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor to review whether there is enough evidence to charge Zimmerman with manslaughter or murder in the racially charged case.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also examining the case and the police investigation for potential civil rights violations. The governor is also reviewing the law, as is a panel of elected officials empanelled this week by state Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Fueled by social media and cable news networks, Trayvon's death has sparked unprecedented publicity.

Rallies and marches have dominated the headlines. President Barack Obama chimed in, saying that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon.

Countless columnists, commentators and bloggers from around the globe have spotlighted Florida's self-defense law, one of more than 20 similar laws in stated across the nation. More than 50 online petitions asking for the law's repeal, signed by more than 2 million people, have also been created on change.org.

In popular culture, Trayvon's image - and criticism of the law - has exploded into the public consciousness. Miami Heat players posed for photos wearing hooded sweatshirts similar to one Trayvon wore the night he was killed.

Even the rock group Red Hot Chili Peppers, playing Monday in Sunrise, made a reference to the law, donning black hoodies with the phrase "Ode to Trayvon Stand What Ground" printed on the back.

It is against the backdrop of public backlash that Miami defense attorney David Macey is hoping to get a judge to grant immunity to his client, Cristobal Palacios, on a 2008 murder charge.

Miami-Dade police and prosecutors say Palacios, in cold blood and in a jealous rage, gunned down his ex-wife's new husband outside Palacios' Kendall home. Palacios' ex-wife and husband, Paul Winter, had gone to the home to drop off Palacios' young twins for a court-ordered week of custody.

Palacios claims he acted in self-defense outside his own home when he saw Winter reaching for something he thought was a weapon. Winter was unarmed.

Trial is scheduled for July, and Macey said that in selecting jurors, it will be "important to weed out the people who want to get revenge for Trayvon Martin."

But, before that, a Miami-Dade judge will decide whether to dismiss the case based on the Stand Your Ground law.

"I'm fearful that there will be backlash and people who deserve the protection of the law will be denied because of the public pressure, " Macey said.

One of the most controversial aspects of the law, as interpreted by the Florida Supreme Court, is that judges can hold an evidentiary hearing to determine whether someone acted in self-defense. These immunity hearings are governed by a looser standard than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" rule one used in jury trials.

But judges are also elected, and legal and political observers say jurists could be hesitant to throw out criminal charges, especially in murder cases, lest they draw criticism.

Last month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom tossed out a murder charge against Greyston Garcia of Miami, who chased down a man who broke into his car and stabbed him to death during a confrontation in which the victim swung a heavy bag containing car radios at him.

While Garcia's attorneys hailed the decision as brave, the decision infuriated police and drew worldwide press attention at the same time that the Sanford case was exploding into the public consciousness.

"Considering it is an election year for some judges, rulings on immunity are a hot topic and will be greatly scrutinized by the public. What judge wants to be in the spotlight on an immunity case? Judges could find themselves making very unpopular decisions when applying this law, " said Miami defense attorney John Priovolos, who himself is waiting for the publicity to die down before filing an immunity motion on a non-murder self-defense case he is handling. "And what happens when a judge does not grant immunity and a jury is left to decide the fate of the defendant? Does it water down a self-defense claim for all defendants? Will a jury disbelieve a defendant if he takes the stand? It's a legitimate concern."

As for the effect of publicity with juries, it is an issue that universally bedevils defense attorneys on cases of all stripes.

Nevertheless, legal observers believe defense lawyers can overcome the "Trayvon Effect" during voir dire, the questioning of potential jurors before the trial begins. Some defense lawyers hope to even use the case to draw a sharp distinction between their clients and the widely reported conduct of Zimmerman.

Former Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Mary Barzee Flores said that prosecutors and defense attorneys will have "to seriously consider how the public perceives the Martin shooting" in deciding whether to take a case to trial in the coming months.

Judges, she said, must carefully help in screening jurors who cannot leave their feelings at the door.

"The jury room is the place for careful, deliberative analysis of oftentimes very difficult and disturbing facts, " she said. "It's not the place for vengeful, emotional reaction to facts and circumstances that have nothing to do with the case at hand."

  George Zimmerman arrives in the courtroom for his trial at the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, in Sanford, Fla., Friday, July 12, 2013. Zimmerman is charged in the 2012 shooting death of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.APFile

THE TRIAL, July, 2013

George Zimmerman was acquitted late Saturday in the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin after a wrenching five-week trial that provoked a national discussion around the thorny issues of race, profiling, selfdefense laws and gun control.

The neighborhood watch captain who fatally shot Trayvon in the heart during a violent struggle 17 months ago showed little reaction when acourt clerk read the verdict aloud in Seminole County courtroom 5D with Zimmerman's family present. Trayvon's parents were not in the courtroom.

The clerk of the court announced the verdict: Not guilty. Had he been convicted, Zimmerman faced the possibility of life in prison. Zimmerman's lead defense attorney Mark O'Mara said, "George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself.'' O'Mara added that Zimmerman became emotional in private, as the reality set in that he was a free man.

As the verdict came in just after 10 p.m., news spread quickly outside the courthouse, with many in the crowd angry and crying. Some chanted "Nationwide protest" as news helicopters swirled overhead. Nearby, Zimmerman supporters hugged.

"This is messed up - he killed a boy. That could've been my kid, " said Syed Shamsuzzaman, of Altamonte Springs, the father of a 24-year-old daughter. Shamsuzzaman wept with other protesters who had been hoping for a different outcome. "I thought the jury would have a better sense of humanity. I thought they wouldn't let him get away with killing a human being, " he said.

The number of Zimmerman supporters thinned shortly after the verdict was announced. A few who remained said they were pleased with the outcome but not in the mood to celebrate. "What happened was a loss for all parties involved, " said Dan Soyer, of Lockwood. "Nobody's a winner."

After almost three weeks of testimony, 56 witnesses on both sides and 60 pieces evidence, the jury - five whites, one Hispanic, mostly mothers - deliberated for about 16 hours over two days. Though Zimmerman did not take the stand, they concluded that he rightfully defended himself when he shot the teen in a Sanford townhouse complex on February 26, 2012.

"From a legal perspective, the jury believed that George Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, that he was in danger of great bodily harm or death in the altercation with Trayvon Martin, '' said David Edelstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney. "They believed he was simply responding with the force necessary to protect himself.''

But for Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin - whose unyielding fight to hold their son's killer accountable became a national cause that included coast-to-coast protests and a petition with more than 2 million signatures - the verdict was an unjust end.

"Even though I am brokenhearted, my faith is unshattered, I will always love my baby, Tray, '' Martin tweeted out just after the verdict was announced.

Trayvon's mother thanked the public for their prayers and tweeted: "Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control."

Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, who helped train the media spotlight on the case, spoke after the verdict: "To everybody who put their hoodies up, to everybody who said, 'I am Trayvon, ' his family expresses their heartfelt gratitude for helping them these past 17 months."

Trayvon, he added, will take a place alongside Medgar Evers and Emmitt Till as "symbols" of justice for all.

And Daryl Parks, another family attorney, said Trayvon's parents are "heartbroken."

"We are very, very saddened, but we accept the jury's verdict in this case, " he said.

Trayvon's supporters vowed to continue the legal fight. Late Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network and an MSNBC cable television host, said he was going to demand the Justice Department pursue civil charges against Zimmerman and plans to organize clergy for a meeting in Florida.

"The acquittal of George Zimmerman is a slap in the face to the American people but it is only the first round in the pursuit of justice. We intend to ask the Department of Justice to move forward as they did in the Rodney King case and we will closely monitor the civil case against Mr. Zimmerman."

The random encounter between Zimmerman, now 29, and Trayvon, 17, riveted and divided the nation - at times along both racial and political lines - in one of the highest profile cases of the last year. It left a landscape of collateral damage: the suburb in the northern shadows of Orlando became adateline for hate and social unrest; its police chief was fired for mishandling the case; Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground Law came under scrutiny, and the circumstances of the shooting came to embody the ever-widening gap between gun control supporters and guns rights advocates.

Those few seconds of violence that led to a teenager's death also galvanized strangers across the nation with a singular message: arrest the man responsible for Trayvon's death. Equally passionate supporters of Zimmerman fought to restore his badly bruised name and undo allegations that painted him as a racist who hunted and killed Trayvon. Contributions to an online Zimmerman's defense fund reached nearly $400,000.

The verdict is the last chapter in a saga that started with distraught parents mourning the death of their son and grew into a national movement, powered largely by social media and a chorus of civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Almost immediately, the case - and for some, the verdict - was viewed through the prickly lens of race: Zimmerman is a white Hispanic. Trayvon was African American.

To some, Trayvon's legacy will be the conversations his death inspired about America's unsettled race history and its uneasy relationship with guns.

"This case opened the eyes of many people about a multitude of issues. It forced aconversation around Stand Your Ground, around self defense laws. There was also the discussion of what is the value of a young, black man's life, '' said Roland Martin, host of a new TV One cable network show and former CNN political analyst who comments regularly on race and social issues.

"Without Trayvon Martin, you might not have seen a new generation of young folks, especially African Americans, engaged in social justice.''

The violent encounter - just seven minutes from the first phone call to police to the arrival of officers - was set in motion that drizzling Sunday night when Zimmerman headed to Target and Trayvon returned from 7-Eleven. The teen was in Sanford with his father, riding out a 10-day suspension from Michael Krop High in North Miami-Dade after being caught with a small bag containing marijuana residue.

Zimmerman, a former criminal justice college student, called police about 7:09 p.m. and reported seeing a "suspicious" young black male - not unlike others who had recently burglarized the complex.

Zimmerman advised the dispatcher in the call that he was going to follow the teen. She told him that he didn't need to do that. He continued to follow the teen, somehow encountering him in a dark, open stretch of the gated townhouse community.

At the time, Zimmerman was carrying a licensed 9 mm semiautomatic gun. Trayvon was carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona drink in his front hoodie pocket. Minutes later, at about 7:17 p.m., Trayvon was sprawled in the grass, dying with a bullet in his chest.

Zimmerman had injuries to his nose and the back of his head. Neighbors who heard and saw parts of the struggle called 911, with one call recording the desperate screams of Trayvon or Zimmerman, followed by the fatal gunshot. From the moment police arrived, Zimmerman steadfastly maintained it was a case of self-defense, saying he only shot after he was attacked by Trayvon. "I did not shoot to take his life, I shot to save my own, '' Zimmerman would later post on his personal website.

Evidence and witness statements initially bore out his account, police decided. He was released from police custody that night.

No charges were filed and the case was sent to local prosecutors as Trayvon supporters began pushing for an arrest. With the impassioned plea of the parents, the justice-for-Trayvon movement was launched, carried nationwide by social media, civil rights organizations, politicians, celebrities and students. Fulton and Martin launched a petition calling for the arrest of Zimmerman that generated 2.2 million signatures and inspired others to use the Internet to publicize other cases.

The arrest 44 days after the shooting - and eventual trial - was hailed a victory. In the weeks after the shooting, complicated portraits of both Trayvon and Zimmerman emerged. Zimmerman was portrayed as an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, an aspiring cop who had recklessly taken the law into his own hands. His parents and supporters said Zimmerman was far from that; he was former altar boy who had mentored black children and collected clothes for the homeless.

Some of the first images of Trayvon that emerged were of a younger, more innocentlooking boy, making the shooting seem all the more heinous. He was described a good student with an interest in fixing or flying planes. It was later revealed that he also had run into some trouble, facing disciplinary action at school and posting profanity-laced messages on Twitter.

The contrasting views of the two key figures furthered the divide. The garment Trayvon wore the night of his death, a simple charcoal-colored hoodie, emerged as an unlikely symbol of solidarity as dozens of protests and marches erupted nationwide.

Thousands posted, shared and tweeted photos of themselves wearing the hooded jackets, supporters as disparate as the Miami Heat players, former Michigan governor Jennifer Grandholm and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. And others adopted the teen's image - black and white portrait of him staring ahead - as their own.

From a historic church in Atlanta to a sprawling garden square in London, from adowntown outdoor mall in Iowa City to Union Square in New York City and Bayfront Park in Miami, thousands of demonstrators protested at marches and rallies, many donning hoodies. In late March 2012 before Zimmerman's arrest, students walked out of 41South Florida schools to protest the killing. That same day, President Barack Obama famously waded into the story noting that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon" - words that fueled the race narrative and garnered scathing criticism by conservatives who said his comments were divisive.

And in Sanford, Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson led rallies and cast the community as the 21st century version of civil rights hotspots like Selma or Birmingham if it did not hold Zimmerman accountable.

With the speeches also came extremist threats ranging from the New Black Panther Party offering a $10,000 bounty for the capture of Zimmerman to a Detroit-based neo-Nazi group pledging to descend on Sanford to protect local white citizens from alleged racial violence.

Even Gainesville Pastor Terry Jones, famous for burning a Quran, led a rally in the city. As the controversy roared, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed special prosector Angela Corey, a Jacksonville-based state attorney to review the case.

In making the decision to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder - a first-degree felony - Corey insisted she did not bow to growing public pressure. In the six weeks following Zimmerman's arrest, he raised more than $200,000, from supporters who believed he was being railroaded and unfairly judged.

And he had other troubles: A Seminole County judge set Zimmerman's bail at $150,000 in April, 2012 , then revoked it three months later after Zimmerman misled authorities about a stash of $135,000 raised online and a second passport he had, raising the specter that he was getting ready to run with his wife, Shellie. He spent 30 days in jail and his wife was charged with perjury. Her case is still pending in Seminole courts. And last September, Zimmerman's friend, federal air marshal Mark Osterman, released a book, Defending Our Friend: The Most Hated Man in America, which revealed Zimmerman had stayed with Osterman after the shooting.

Proceeds from sales were to go to the defense fund, but Zimmerman's lawyers distanced themselves from the controversial book. In the lull between the charges and the trial, Sanford worked to return to normalcy. The charming Central Florida town had become a racially charged battleground, dividing the community. For many African Americans, the marches for Trayvon had tapped into lingering distrust and resentment of the Sanford Police Department.

The police chief had already been fired in the aftermath of the shooting, but the wounds were still fresh.

With the help of the U.S. Justice Department, a coalition of city and community leaders and pastors ushered in a plan to help the city heal as they prepared for a trial that begun with selecting a jury from a pool of 500 Seminole County residents.

It took two weeks to select jurors who had been unswayed by the relentless media coverage and the question of race that hung over the case. In the end, the six women exonerated Zimmerman.

Said Don West, one of Zimmerman's defense lawyers: "I am thrilled the jury prevented this tragedy from becoming a travesty."

Crowds gathered at the Friendship Torch in front of Bayfront Park for a Trayvon Martin vigil on July 14, 2013. Crowds demanded changes to laws and made a social call to arms after George Zimmerman was acquitted from the murder of Martin.

  Comments