Police Chief in Trayvon Martin Case Resigns 'Temporarily'

Chief Bill Lee stepping down "temporarily," stands by investigation, officers.

March 22, 2012, 10:14 AM

SANFORD, Fla., March 22, 2012— -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee is temporarily stepping down amid accusations that his department bungled the investigation into the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

Lee's announcement he was stepping aside came shortly before Florida Gov. Rick Scott said another key investigator tied to the case, State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, also had agreed to withdraw. Angela B. Corey of the 4th Judicial Circuit Court was appointed to replace Wolfinger.

Scott added that Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll would lead a special new task force to prevent future tragedies like Martin's death that would "conduct public hearings, take testimony and recommend actions -- legislative and otherwise -- to both protect our citizens and safeguard our rights."

Lee, in a hastily organized press conference, said he was stepping down because he "hopes to restore semblance of calm to the city." He added, "My hope is that the investigation process will move forth swiftly."

Lee said he stands by his department's investigation and the officers involved, but he acknowledges that he has become "a distraction from the investigation."

"It is apparent that my involvement in this matter is overshadowing the process," he said.

City Manager Norton Bonaparte, who had earlier said he would defer any decision on Lee's fate until after a thorough investigation had been completed, said, "What the city of Sanford wants more than anything else for the family of Trayvon Martin is justice."

"We are looking for a complete, thorough review," he said. "Justice will prevail."

Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, was carrying only a bag of Skittles, iced tea and his cell phone, when Zimmerman allegedly killed him on Feb. 26.

While Martin's family has repeatedly called for Zimmerman's arrest, Sanford police accepted Zimmerman's claim that the shooting was in self defense.

Lee's resignation comes as the Sanford police department has come under increased scrutiny for an investigation that some say they botched from the very start.

The list of possible police missteps uncovered by ABC News is long: The department allegedly ignored some witnesses while failing to follow up with others. One officer "corrected" the testimony of an eye witness who said she heard "the boy," Martin, crying out; the officer allegedly told the witness that it was Zimmerman who was screaming for help.

Most egregious, say experts, was the failure of the department to follow up with Martin's girlfriend, who was on the phone with him in the seconds before Zimmerman confronted Martin and shot him dead. Police had Martin's cellphone call logs but never reached out to the girl, who said that Zimmerman followed, pursued and accosted Martin.

"That's a serious, serious fatal flaw," said Rod Wheeler, a homicide investigator who is not involved with the case, "and it could be a fatal flaw in this investigation. And the police department definitely needs to go back, re-interview anyone and everyone that has any information."

Wheeler said that investigators from the justice department will also begin their investigation with new witness interviews. On Monday, it was announced the FBI, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida will investigate the killing.

And while law enforcement analysts tell ABC News that Zimmerman sounded intoxicated in his call to police that night, police never gave him a toxicology test, which is standard in most homicide cases. Police also did not check Zimmerman's vehicle or impound it.

The FBI has said it is now examining the 911 tapes, which include a possible racial slur believed to be muttered by Zimmerman, a neighborhood crime watch volunteer who pursued Martin, confronted him and after a scuffle shot him dead.

The Martin family also criticized the Sanford police department for failing to identify their son more quickly. Martin's body was left in the morgue for three days, classified as a "John Doe." The family charges that officers didn't bother to ask neighbors if they recognized Martin, who had been staying with his father in the neighborhood.

Bonaparte acknowledged that case has been entangled in racial issues, which have dominated local discourse. "The actual killing of Martin is tragic and what it hit a chord on in America is the ongoing systemic problems between law enforcement and the black community."

Thousands are expected to attend a rally organized by the Reverend Al Sharpton tonight, demanding Zimmerman's arrest. Earlier Sharpton told ABC News that "Trayvon Martin is our generation's Emmett Till," referring to a 14-year-old black youth lynched in 1955 by for allegedly flirting with a white girl.

"It's an opportunity to say in America we are going to change the face of racism," said Bonaparte. "This is terrible but let's see what we can learn from this."

Wednesday night a "Million Hoodie March" was held in New York City in memory of Martin. The teen's parents addressed demonstrators chanting "We want arrests." They promised to keep fighting to get justice for their son.

The resignation of the police chief follows a heated special meeting of Sanford city commissioners Wednesday night, who voted "no confidence" against Lee. Three of five commissioners voted against him, and one commissioner demanded that Lee resign.

"The unknown in a tragedy will make the heart do crazy things, and we haven't done a good job of getting out in front of that," said Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett after the vote. "I have confidence in him in a lot of ways, and don't have confidence in him in some ways."

The vote of "no confidence" came after Triplett fielded some tough questions from neighborhood residents and the media during an NAACP meeting aimed at addressing allegations of police misconduct in the community.

"If there were mistakes made we are going to act accordingly," Triplett said in response to a question from ABC News about the investigation into Martin's death.

But it's not just the conduct of police or local officials that is drawing ire.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law gives enormous leeway to people like Zimmerman to use deadly force if they feel threatened. Since the law was enacted seven years ago, justified homicides in Florida have jumped threefold, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Twenty states have similar laws, but Florida's is widely viewed as having the broadest application. Courts across the state have been trying to figure out how to grapple with the legislation and the Martin killing is one of several examples that have stirred controversy.

In another ongoing trial, lawyers for Trevor Dooley are using the law to defend him in the death of his neighbor David James. In 2010, Dooley shot James in front of his 8-year-old daughter after witnesses say the two men got into an altercation on a basketball court in Valrico, Fla., when James tried to prevent Dooley from shooing away a teenage skateboarder using the court to practice tricks.

Dooley's attorneys argue that he is protected by Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law and that he shot James in self defense.

Cases like this and Martin's have led Florida State Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, one of the original sponsors of the law, to say that it has been misused.

"There was nothing in this statute ever intended to protect somebody who was pursuing or confronting other people," said Baxley.

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