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.
Chief Lee has said evidence in the case supports 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,” Chief Lee said.
Later on Thursday evening, Gov. Rick Scott announced that the local state attorney, Norman Wolfinger, had recused himself from the case. In a letter to Mr. Scott, Mr. 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.”
The governor appointed Angela B. Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take over the case.
Mr. Scott also appointed a task force led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who is black, to conduct hearings on the case and to make recommendations for any changes to state law or procedures.
Trayvon was returning from a trip to a convenience store when Mr. Zimmerman started following him, telling police dispatchers he looked suspicious. At some point, the two got into a fight and Mr. Zimmerman pulled out his gun.
Mr. Zimmerman told police that Trayvon 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. Black and liberal 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,” Chief Lee said.
Trayvon’s parents said temporarily stepping down wasn’t enough, and that Mr. 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,” Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, said to fiery crowd of about 1,000 supporters in downtown Sanford also attended by the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Some people said the police chief should step down for good.
“If they wanted to defuse a potential powder keg, he needed to resign,” said the Rev. 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.”
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