Martin family’s attorney seeks Justice Dept. investigation into police actions after shooting

April 2, 2012

The attorney for Trayvon Martin’s parents asked the Justice Department on Monday to investigate allegations that relatives of the man who shot Martin met with law enforcement officials at the police department hours after the shooting.

Lawyer Benjamin Crump said in an interview he has information that “family members” of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman were at the police department in Sanford, Fla., the night of the Feb. 26 shooting. Crump also alleged that a meeting took place that evening between Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and Florida State Attorney Norm Wolfinger.

“After those meetings, they mysteriously dropped the charges,” Crump said.

Wolfinger issued a statement disputing the allegations, saying he was “outraged by the outright lies contained” in a letter Crump sent to Justice officials requesting an investigation.

The Martin family’s call for a federal investigation into what happened inside police headquarters the night their son was killed is the latest wrinkle in a case that has riveted the nation. Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was fatally shot by Zimmerman while walking in the rain from a nearby convenience store to the townhouse where he was staying with his father and his father’s fiancee.

Detective’s views rejected

After the initial questioning of Zimmerman at the police station, the lead homicide detective recommended that Zimmerman be arrested and charged with manslaughter. Detective Chris Serino wrote an affidavit saying that he did not find Zimmerman’s statements credible and wanted to pursue charges.

But police officials decided not to press charges, citing Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which permits a person to use deadly force if he believes his life is being threatened. Zimmerman told police that Martin attacked him and that he was acting in self-defense.

A former Florida law enforcement official said Sanford detectives seem to have handled the case as they would any other — ultimately recommending charges on the night of the shooting — but that those recommendations weren’t followed.

“It appears the cops may have done a pretty good job on this and then they basically got overruled up top,” said the law enforcement official, who did not want to be named because of the ongoing investigation. “You’ve got the city falling down around you, morale in the police department is atrocious and the city’s reputation is damaged because of one decision that mushroomed.”

‘A very poor decision’

City Commissioner Mark McCarty, who asked for Lee’s resignation and spurred the commission’s no-confidence vote against him, said he thinks the evidence was sufficient to arrest Zimmerman right after the shooting. McCarty said he believes Lee made the decision not to charge him.

“It was fear of making a mistake. No one saw how volatile a situation like this would be,” McCarty said, sitting in Sanford City Hall last week as he prepared to meet with a Justice Department official. “It was a very poor decision. There was no justice in cutting a guy loose. The Sanford Police Department could have made an arrest easily enough and let the justice system sort it out.”

Lee could not be reached for comment.

“We respectfully request that the United States Department of Justice investigate the circumstances surrounding this meeting between Chief Bill Lee and State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, in which they disregarded the lead homicide investigator’s recommendation to arrest George Zimmerman for manslaughter,” Crump wrote in his letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the civil rights division; and Roy Austin, deputy assistant attorney general.

“The department is reviewing the letter,” Justice spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said.

Multiple investigations

Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey is continuing to investigate the shooting of Martin with an eye toward possible criminal charges. The Justice Department has begun a “parallel investigation” focusing on whether Martin’s civil rights were violated and a hate crime was committed.

“I encourage the Justice Department to investigate and document that no such meeting or communication occurred,” Wol­finger said in the statement. “I have been encouraging those spreading the irresponsible rhetoric to stop and allow State Attorney Angela Corey to complete her work.”

FBI agents went Monday to the gated community of Retreat at Twin Lakes, where the shooting occurred, to interview potential witnesses in the case, according to special agent Dave Couvertier, spokesman for the FBI’s Tampa Field Office.

Central to federal agents is the 911 tape recording of Zimmerman’s conversations with a dispatcher about a suspicious man he saw in the community. Investigators are trying to determine whether Zimmerman used a racial slur during the calls.

On Monday, ABC released enhanced video footage, showing Zimmerman in police custody less than 30 minutes after the shooting, which appears to show an injury on the back of his head. The gash would back Zimmerman’s claim that he was in an altercation and that Martin repeatedly slammed his head into the ground, the network said.

Norton Bonaparte Jr., who took over as Sanford’s city manager six months ago, also called on the Justice Department to review the case and the conduct of police.

“I want to know myself if what the police department did was appropriate, if they did things they shouldn’t have done or didn’t do things they should have done,” Bonaparte said. “The credibility of the Sanford Police Department was called into question, and I wanted an outside, independent, review.”

White reported from Sanford. Staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Sari Horwitz joined The Post’s investigations unit in 2006 after 23 years at paper, where she has reported on crime, homeland security, education and social services.
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