Monday, April 23, 2012

Sanford, Florida Police Chief Quits Over Trayvon Martin Murder Case

Trayvon Martin death: Sanford police chief Bill Lee to quit

Lee stepped down temporarily last month after he claimed his leadership had become a distraction to the investigation

Karen McVeigh in New York, Monday 23 April 2012 16.06 EDT

The Florida police chief criticised for his handling of the Trayvon Martin investigation will step down at midnight on Monday, if his resignation is approved by Sanford city commission.

Police chief Bill Lee temporarily stepped down last month, saying his leadership had become a distraction from the investigation into Martin's killing. It followed a three-to-two vote of no confidence in him by the city commission amid continued protests and calls for his resignation from the NAACP.

Criticism included that Lee failed to immediately take George Zimmerman – the neighbourhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin – into custody and failed to subject him to drug and alcohol tests after the shooting.

News of Lee's resignation came just hours after Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder earlier this month, was released from jail on a $150,000 bond.

According to a press release from the city, the chief's resignation would take effect at midnight if commissioners, in a special meeting at 4pm, approve a separation agreement tendered by the chief.

"The city has experienced great turmoil in the past two months and we are hoping to stabilise the department and continue with this time of healing," City manager Norton Bonaparte said, in a statement.

Captain Darren Scott, who has been serving as acting police chief, will continue in that role while the city continues its search for a replacement, the release said.

When contacted by the Guardian on Monday, the Sanford police department was not immediately available for comment.

Lee's decision came as George Zimmerman's lawyer said sorry for the surprise apology his client offered to Trayvon Martin's parents during his bail bond hearing last Friday.

Mark O'Mara told CBS This Morning that if he had known the apology would upset Martin's family, he would not have allowed Zimmerman to do it.

On Friday, Zimmerman took the witness stand at the hearing and addressed Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who were in court: "I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son," he said. "I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. And I did not know if he was armed or not."

After the hearing, Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for the Martin family, made clear the family's distaste, dismissing the apology as insincere and poorly timed. The family had rejected O'Mara's request for a private meeting before the hearing as "self-serving".

"The apology was somewhat of a surprise because we had told them this was not the appropriate time, but they just disregarded that, and he went and pandered to the court and the media and gave a very insincere apology," Crump told reporters.

"We had reached out to see if we could do it privately," O'Mara said on Monday. But he said he had been unaware of the family's response to his request.

O'Mara dismissed the claim that Zimmerman's comments were aimed at the judge in order to influence the bond hearing. He said he would have advised his client differently had he been aware of the family's response, which he said wasn't communicated to him.

He said: "I didn't realise that the way [Martin's family] had responded to me was through a press conference where they said it was too late or not an appropriate time.

"To be honest, had I known that – maybe had I seen the press conference – I'm not sure that we would have done it at the bond hearing, because the purpose of it truly was to get to the family and to respond directly to the family's request. Had I known or been told that that wasn't the time, it wouldn't have happened. So I apologise for that."

Zimmerman, who admits shooting the unarmed black teenager on February 26 this year, is pleading not guilty, claiming-self defence.

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