SANFORD, Florida (AP) — Civil rights leaders in the U.S. pressured authorities to make an arrest in the case of an unarmed black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain after declaring victories in getting federal and state officials to investigate.
The case has become a nationwide sensation and ignited a furor against the police department of the Orlando suburb of Sanford, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot last month. It has prompted rallies around the state and a protest in Gov. Rick Scott’s office Tuesday. The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has said it is sending its community relations service this week to “address tension in the community.”
At a town hall meeting Tuesday evening, officials from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Nation of Islam urged residents to remain calm but demand that the shooter, George Zimmerman, be arrested.
Zimmerman has not been charged in the Feb. 26 shooting and has said he shot Martin, who was returning to a gated community after buying candy at a convenience store, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Police said Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.
“I stand here as a son, father, uncle who is tired of being scared for our boys,” said Benjamin Jealous, national president of the NAACP. “I’m tired of telling our young men how they can’t dress, where they can’t go and how they can’t behave.”
An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman had drawn more than 700,000 signatures at website Change.org as of early Wednesday.
U.S. Justice Department has opened a civil rights probe into the shooting, and prosecutor Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.
“We are pleased the Department of Justice has heeded our calls and agreed to investigate this outrageous case,” Jealous said in an emailed statement Tuesday. “The rules of justice in this nation have failed when an innocent teenage boy can be shot to death by a vigilante and no arrest is made for weeks.”
Earlier Tuesday, an attorney for Martin’s family revealed the teenager told his girlfriend just moments before he was killed that he was being followed.
”’Oh he’s right behind me, he’s right behind me again,’” Martin told his girlfriend on his cell phone, attorney Benjamin Crump said.
The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” Another man asked, “What are you doing around here?’” Crump said.
After Martin encountered Zimmerman, the girl thought she heard a scuffle “because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech,” Crump said. The phone call ended before the girl heard gunshots.
The last call was at 7:12 p.m. Police arrived at 7:17 p.m. to find Martin lying face down.
Police said Zimmerman, who was found bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, told authorities he yelled for help before shooting Martin.
Zimmerman was handcuffed after police arrived and taken into custody for questioning but was released by police without being charged.
Crump called the treatment patently unfair and asked if Martin would have received the same treatment if he had been the shooter.
“We will not rest until he is arrested,” Crump said.
Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.
Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.
“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”
Authorities may be hamstrung by a state “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force and does not require a retreat in the face of danger.
During the town hall meeting, Florida Rep. Geraldine Thompson promised the law’s repeal would be a top priority for the state legislature’s black caucus.
“If vigilante justice becomes the norm, will visitors feel comfortable coming to our state?” she said.
Anderson reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and Brent Kallestad contributed from Tallahassee, Florida.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.