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Police Chief Steps Aside over Trayvon Martin Case

9:51 AM, Mar 23, 2012   |    comments
Sanford Police Department Chief Bill Lee (left) speaks while announcing he will temporarily step down in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing as Sanford city manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. (R) stands by on March 22, 2012 in Sanford, Florida. Many protesters are expected tonight at a rally organized by Rev. Al Sharpton to demonstrate against the killing of the black unarmed teenager by a white and Hispanic neighborhood watch captain. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
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By Yamiche Alcindor, Larry Copeland, and Marisol Bello

SANFORD, Fla. (USA Today) -- The embattled police chief overseeing the Trayvon Martin investigation said Thursday he will "temporarily remove" himself from his job amid mounting criticism and pressure to charge a neighborhood watch leader with killing the teenager.

A few hours later, the local prosecutor, Norman Wolfinger, stepped down from handling the case, and Gov. Rick Scott appointed another state attorney to handle the investigation.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee said that he stands by his department's initial investigation but that he is stepping aside to avoid being a distraction. The case has been drawing widespread national coverage amid claims that Trayvon, who is black, was a victim of racial stereotyping.

"It is apparent that my role in this matter is overshadowing the process," Lee said at a news conference, adding that he felt he should remove himself from his post "in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks."

Wolfinger, the local state attorney, said in a letter to the governor that his recusal from the case was aimed at "toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation." Scott appointed Angela Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take the case.


Trayvon, 17, was shot Feb. 26 as he was returning to a gated community after buying candy at a convenience store. The gunman, Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman, has not been charged and has said he shot the unarmed youth in self-defense.

The 911 calls paint a confusing picture of the shooting and it is unclear who was the aggressor in the fight between Trayvon and Zimmerman. A 911 caller told the dispatcher that he saw a man on the ground screaming for help, according to a recording of the call on Sanford's municipal website.

The caller turned to hold back his dog and then he heard the gunshot and the screaming stopped.


Zimmerman, who police say is white but whose family says he is Hispanic, had been following Trayvon on foot and called the police department to report possible suspicious behavior. Zimmerman said he lost sight of Trayvon and was returning to his truck when he was attacked.

City Manager Norton Bonaparte refused to say what Lee meant by "temporarily" removing himself as police chief. Bonaparte said a search would begin immediately for an interim chief.

A few hours before the announcement, Bonaparte told USA TODAY that he would await the results of investigations into the Sanford Police Department by the Department of Justice and the Florida state attorney's office before deciding Lee's fate.

"I want to know if there were things they should have done that they didn't do, or things they did that they shouldn't have done," Bonaparte said.

He and Lee both left the news conference without answering questions.

Wednesday, many called for firing Lee and the Sanford City Commission, in a 3-2 vote, voted "no confidence" in Lee.

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said outside Sanford City Hall that Lee "needs to step down, not just step aside."

"I don't see how this gets to a place where he isn't fired or just decides to quit," Jealous said. "By letting this linger for weeks, he has embarrassed our entire country."

There have been "assumptions and conclusions" made by the public regarding the Martin case that are based on limited information, Lee said in an email to USA TODAY this week. "There is much information that at this time is not public record to ensure the integrity of the investigation," he said.

The initial police report of the incident says that an officer noticed that Zimmerman showed apparent signs of being in a struggle. "I could observe that his back appeared to be wet and was covered in grass, as if he had been laying on his back on the ground. Zimmerman was also bleeding from the nose and back of his head," the officer said in the report.

The report also said that while Zimmerman was getting first aid from the fire department, he said, "I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me."

Bello and Alcindor reported from McLean, Va.

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