SANFORD, FLA. -- Artificial flowers. A ceramic angel. A 4-foot cross bearing the image of Trayvon Martin.
were once part of a makeshift memorial for Trayvon, shot to death in
one of the nation's most sensational killings of 2012. Now the items sit
in limbo in a storage room at the Sanford city museum after some
residents of the gated community where he died grew tired of seeing
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What to do next with the items confuses this city as it
ponders how to remember Trayvon, 17, and a shooting that thrust Sanford
and its 54,000 residents into the center of a national story.
have people who want it moved and people who want to keep it," said
Francis Oliver, a longtime Sanford resident who thinks the memorial
should not have been touched. "There's the part that wants to move on
and forget Trayvon Martin. But there's not going to be any getting past
it until the trial is over."
That may be awhile. The case of
George Zimmerman, 29, the man who shot Trayvon, has officials and
residents bracing for a conclusion that probably will drag into 2013.
months across the country, people - fixated on Trayvon, Zimmerman and
this small Southern city - have debated about race, gun laws, and the
meaning of self-defense. Sanford, a place once known for celery farms
and a scenic coastline, is grappling with its future as two court
hearings this week promise to thrust the city back into the headlines.
Tuesday, prosecutors and Zimmerman's defense team will update newly
appointed Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson on the state of the
case at a docket sounding. Friday, the two sides will be back in court
to discuss subpoenas and whether defense attorneys have the right to
obtain Trayvon's school records.
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A date for the trial has yet to
be set. Mark O'Mara, Zimmerman's lawyer, has said he doesn't expect it
to occur this year. Before that happens, O'Mara plans to have a
self-defense immunity hearing where the judge, if she believes
Zimmerman's claims of self-defense, could drop the charges.
neither hearing this week is likely to bring an end to the case, city
officials plan to watch both and future court proceedings closely.
any given time, if a judge agrees to hold a hearing on any motion that
can interrupt or permanently halt the case, I worry," said Interim
Sanford Police Chief Richard Myers. "The entire community and, in fact,
beyond the community of Sanford is concerned about the outcome of this
case. There are people who are concerned about any finding of guilt and
any finding of not guilty or about having the charges dropped from a
Myers, who has been in office since May, hopes that
before the case ends, the police department will repair some of its
strained relationship with black residents and address the underlying
issues that caused this case to become so controversial.
been little progress in that direction and many residents remain
distrustful of officers and city leaders, said Velma Williams, a Sanford
city commissioner who represents Goldsboro, a majority black
She has been preparing her constituents for the case's end and admits she is worried about how it will play out.
tried to talk to people and say we live in a society in which the
courts make decisions and you have to accept it," Williams said. "I told
people get ready, position yourself mentally to accept whatever the
Some Zimmerman supporters fear he might not get a fair trial in Sanford.
have been very polarized by this case, and there are a lot of
heightened emotions around the racial issues," O'Mara said. "It's scary
to be George Zimmerman trying to get a fair trial and to stay alive
until you get there." Race is not a factor in the case and should never
have been made an issue, he says.
Zimmerman's brother maintains that Trayvon reached for the gun and that Zimmerman was forced to shoot the teen.
stopped someone from disarming him and shooting him," Robert Zimmerman
Jr. told CNN's Piers Morgan. "He didn't pull out a gun and shoot him.
George showed tremendous restraint."
story of the night of Feb. 26 is a familiar one now. Zimmerman, a
neighborhood watch volunteer, and Trayvon, who was visiting the Retreat
at Twin Lakes, got into a confrontation, and Zimmerman shot the unarmed
Police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, who claimed he
shot Trayvon after the teen repeatedly knocked his head into the
concrete sidewalk. No charges were filed.
Trayvon's family argued
that Zimmerman racially profiled the teen and confronted him. The
assertion led thousands - including Al Sharpton and NAACP President
Benjamin Jealous - to call for Zimmerman's arrest at rallies in the city
In the wake of the outcry, a special prosecutor was
assigned to the case and decided to charge Zimmerman with second-degree
murder. Zimmerman, out on bail, is in hiding after threats to his life
Eight months after Trayvon's death, tensions remain
high, as several black residents view the removal of the teen's memorial
as a sign of further discrimination, Williams said.
returned to a state of complacency and long-term distrust," said
Williams, who added that it's hard to justify removing this memorial
while allowing others in the city to remain standing.
Bonaparte, Sanford's city manager, said he ordered the memorial moved
after residents of the area said the items - across from an elementary
school - had been up long enough. Moving the memorial to the museum
preserves the items while the city figures out what to do, he said.
no easy answer," Bonaparte said. "We aren't trying to forget about
Trayvon Martin, but the shooting should not define what people think of
Oliver and others aren't buying that argument. The
narrative, for them, is as clear as it was in February. "The night
Trayvon Martin was killed, you had the killer who confessed, and he just
walked in one door and out the other," she said. "This case brought out
the injustice in Sanford. It was time for it to stop."
O'Brien, who runs The Corner Cafe downtown, said he won't know what to
think until a jury decides Zimmerman's fate. "The final chapter on this
has not been written," he said. "There is a bit of a cloud over the city
because it is unresolved."
His customers rarely bring up the case
in public conversations anymore, but there's a sense that everyone is
waiting for the courts to figure out what really happened, he said.
sees the story of the case and the memorial ending two ways: Zimmerman
is cleared of all wrongdoing, and Trayvon's belongings go back to his
parents without a memorial being built. Or Zimmerman is found guilty,
and the city creates a permanent reminder for an unarmed teenager killed
in cold blood.
"My sense is that the prudent move would be to
preserve the elements of the memorial, and let's see how the rest of
this story plays out," he said.
'Make it A better city'
Now that the demonstrations gone and the story appears less frequently in headlines, many residents have tried to move on.
the surface, Sanford looks normal. Weekly block parties have resumed,
and residents stroll in and out of the downtown's cafes, antique
furniture stores and quirky bookstores. But people still quietly talk
about the case.
"It's the stuff you can't see coming into
Sanford," Oliver said. It's the tension between neighbors, classes and
races, she said. There are also the periodic releases of new evidence,
the public arguments by attorneys on both sides over everything from
judges to school records, and the memorial debate. Each release seems to
stir up feelings.
Bonaparte worries that the case obscures a
full image of Sanford and its tourists attractions. He's launched a
campaign to present the city as beautiful - and normal - and is looking
into running ads with scenes from the city's boardwalk and beaches.
have the opportunity to make it a better city," Bonaparte said. "In
some minds, we are indelibly linked to Trayvon Martin, but that doesn't
stop us in also having people recognize Sanford as a great place to live
West Seminole Boulevard is lined by a blue ocean
and throngs of Lake Monroe fishermen who throw their lines past aging
boardwalk planks. Across the city, Spanish moss drapes the branches of
large green trees .
Sanford has problems that predate Trayvon's
death, Bonaparte said. The city struggled to balance its budget and
provide services for residents. Home values have dropped, businesses
have closed, and people have grown tired of panhandlers, he said.
struggles show up right at the entrance to the city. The rust-colored
brick and stone "Est. 1877 Sanford" arch welcomes visitors alongside a
pale empty building with dark glass windows once occupied by a pharmacy.
Closed gas stations, fast food restaurants, and large discount
department stores line main streets.
As Zimmerman's trial looms,
Myers has sent police officers into neighborhoods to spend time with
residents and earn their trust. Williams said more should be done, such
as assigning officers to identify drug dealers and gang members in
Many in Sanford will struggle for a while to
really get back to normal, said Laurie Johnson, a counseling professor
at Hofstra University in New York who has worked in New Orleans
post-Katrina, in Lower Manhattan post-9/11 and in war-torn Bosnia.
built to assume that our lives and our communities will be basically
safe," she said. "When something occurs that is random, that creates
travesty for people, and this assumption is shattered, when assumptions
are shattered, life changes dramatically."
Eventually, people confront their issues and life goes on, Johnson said.
Oliver doesn't know when that day will come for Sanford.
biggest hurdle is getting people to admit that Sanford has problems,"
Oliver said. "People are calling for Sanford to heal, but they haven't
come to an agreement on what they need to be healed from."