28 Mar 2012

Row over police leaks following Trayvon Martin shooting

Police at the centre of the Trayvon Martin case tell Channel 4 News “we do not condone unauthorised leaks” as the dead teenager’s mother says the disclosure are “designed to discredit her son”.

Rallies are being held demanding justice for Trayvon Martin (Reuters)

Sanford Police Department have launched an internal investigation into a number of leaks from their office.

Trayvon Martin’s mother said the information was designed to deflect attention from the authorities’ failure to prosecute over the death of an “innocent teenager”. Sybrina and Tracy, Trayvon’s father, attended a congressional briefing which is looking at hate crime and racial profiling.

The 17-year-old was killed on 26 February when self-appointed neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot him as he returned from the local 7-Eleven store armed only with a soft drink and a bag of Skittles.

A failure to launch legal proceedings against Mr Zimmerman, who does not deny the killing but claims it was in self-defence, has reopened old wounds and racial tensions which have long dogged the US justice system.

A black veteran police officer said that “racism is alive and well” in the US.

Miami Police Department homicide detective Sergeant Ervens Ford, who has joined in public protests to demand justice for Martin, said that the self-defence law does not apply in the racially-tinged case.

“He (Martin) would have had a better ‘Stand Your Ground’ (case) than Zimmerman,” Ford said.

“It does not apply when you chase after a person, when you, essentially, are the aggressor,” he said.

He was referring to the fact that Zimmerman, 28, said in an emergency call that he was chasing the 17-year-old Martin shortly before the shooting because he looked to be “up to no good” and was dressed in a “hoodie” hooded sweatshirt. On the call, Zimmerman had also identified Martin as a black youth.

Stand your ground

On Monday solicitor Benjamin Mr Crump spoke at the committee along with representatives of civil rights groups and the US Justice Department, on the question of race and justice. The committee is examining the “stand your ground” laws. These give people immunity if they use lethal force when they feel threatened.

The case is now being investigated by the FBI, the justice department’s civil rights division and the US attorney’s office for the middle district of Florida.

They’ve killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation. Sybrina Martin

Xochitil Hinojosa, of the US Department of Justice, told Channel 4 News: “The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation.

“With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law.

“Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.”

However the spokesperson declined to elaborate on the department’s comments relating to “neglience, recklessness, mistakes and accidents”, or whether they are considering whether to launch prosecution proceedings.

Pounded on the head

In a sign of growing tensions, it appears police leaked information relating to the case which is being seen as an attempt to derail the investigation, including claims by Mr Zimmerman that he was punched to the ground and pounded on the head by the boy as he lay on the pavement.

They have also released further claims that the teenager was in Florida because he had been suspended by school for possession of marijuana, prompting furious criticism from the Martin family and their spokesman.

“They’ve killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation,” she said.

Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws. US Department of Justice

Ryan Julison, the family spokesman, added: “Regardless of Trayvon’s suspension, it had nothing to do with what happened on February 26.”

Sanford Police said disciplinary action would be considered for the perpetrator of the leaks. City manager of the police department, Norton Bonaparte Jr, said in a statement to Channel 4 News: “We do not condone these unauthorised leaks of information. Acting chief Scott will be doing an internal investigation within the Sanford Police Department as this type of action compromises the integrity of the law enforcement agency which has pledged to uphold the law.”

Since the death of Trayvon, a series of marches have taken place across the country calling for his killer to be brought to justice, with preachers wearing hoodies at sermons across the country in solidarity with the boy.

Last week, the case reached the top levels of US government after President Barack Obama declared that if he had had a son, he would look like the teenager.

Sanford police chief Bill Lee also stepped down temporarily amid criticism of the force’s handling of the case, with governor Rick Scott hours later annoucing that the county prosecutor would no longer preside over the investigation.