Miami – The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the fatal shooting last month of an unarmed black Florida teenager by a crime watch volunteer, a case that has set off a national outcry.
In a statement released Monday night, the Justice Department said its Civil Rights Division, in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would investigate the death of the teenager, Trayvon Martin, who was shot as he was walking to the home of his father’s girlfriend from a convenience store in Sanford, just north of Orlando, on Feb. 26. The neighborhood watch volunteer has told the police that he shot Trayvon, 17, in self-defense.
“The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” Xochitl Hinojosa, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident.”
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The Justice Department said it was also dispatching members of its Community Relations Service to Sanford to try to defuse tensions. The Rev. Al Sharpton is scheduled to attend a town-hall-style meeting in Sanford on Tuesday evening.
The announcement of the federal investigation came after protests and a growing number of complaints that the Sanford Police Department had mishandled the case and demands that the state and federal governments open their own inquiries.
By Tuesday morning, more than 500,000 people had signed an online petition seeking the prosecution of George Zimmerman, 28, the crime watch volunteer who shot Trayvon.
The shooting has raised new questions about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which was approved in 2005. The law does not require a person who is threatened to retreat in order to claim self-defense, and Mr. Zimmerman has claimed he fired his weapon while defending himself.
The shooting occurred on a rainy night as Mr. Zimmerman was patrolling his neighborhood in his sport utility vehicle. Several break-ins had been reported in the area in recent weeks, and Mr. Zimmerman was especially alert.
He spotted Trayvon wearing a sweatshirt, with the hood draped over his head. Mr. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, trailed him a bit. Then he called 911, the first of seven calls from Mr. Zimmerman and panicked neighbors.
The police released the 911 recordings to reporters late last week after nearly three weeks of pressure from Trayvon’s parents and their supporters.
The 911 calls from the gated community in Sanford culminate with a faint voice in the distance crying and pleading for help. A gunshot is heard, and then silence. Mr. Zimmerman told the police that he had shot Trayvon in self-defense, after the two got into a fight and Mr. Zimmerman wound up on the ground.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something,” Mr. Zimmerman told a dispatcher in his initial call. “It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” Mr. Zimmerman continued: “He’s here now just looking at all the houses. Now he’s just staring at me.” Then he added a second later: “He’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is. Can you get an officer over here?”
Then he got out of the car with his licensed 9-millimeter pistol, and a worried dispatcher asked: “Are you following him? O.K., you don’t need to do that.”
At that point, Trayvon ran, and Mr. Zimmerman continued to follow. The dispatcher told him to wait for the police. A suggestion was made that Mr. Zimmerman and the police should meet by a mailbox. But then Mr. Zimmerman changed his mind. “Actually, could you have him call me and I’ll tell him where I’m at?” he said.
The next spate of calls came from anxious neighbors. A faint cry for help and terrified howls can be heard in the background. Neighbors said they had seen two men nearby in the dark. They reported hearing a gunshot.
“A guy yelled: ‘Help! Oh, my God,’ ” one man told the dispatcher. “There is two guys in the backyard with flashlights. There is a black guy down and it looks like he’s been shot and he’s dead.”
One caller said: “I think they’re yelling ‘Help!’ but I don’t know. Send someone quickly, please.”
It is not clear from the audio whether one or two shots were fired. And, with the voice muffled in the distance, it is difficult to know which of them is crying out for help.
The police told The Orlando Sentinel on Friday they believed that the voice crying for help was Mr. Zimmerman’s. They say that prosecutors have told them they do not have enough evidence to dispute Mr. Zimmerman’s claim that he acted in self-defense. The case has been turned over to the state attorney’s office.
“That is the circumstance we are dealing with: If we arrest, we open ourselves to a lawsuit,” Sgt. Dave Morgenstern, a spokesman with the Sanford Police Department, said. “I would have to say I don’t think we have conducted a racially biased investigation at all.”
Sergeant Morgenstern said that Mr. Zimmerman was in contact with the police and was cooperating with the investigation. In a letter to The Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Zimmerman’s father said that his son had black relatives and friends and was not the aggressor in the case.
Mr. Zimmerman, who is studying criminal justice, was arrested once in 2005 on felony charges of battery on a police officer and resisting arrest with violence. Prosecutors chose not to pursue the case.
Trayvon had no criminal record. He was suspended from his Miami high school for 10 days in February, which is the reason he was visiting his father. The family said the suspension was not for violent or criminal behavior but for a violation of school policy.
Trayvon’s parents say they have no doubt that it is their son pleading for his life in the background of the audio. They say they can imagine Trayvon reacting with fright or concern upon seeing a burly stranger trailing him in his car, then getting out to follow him.
“I listened to the tapes and it just broke my heart again to hear him screaming out for help and pleading for his life, and he was still murdered,” said Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother. “There is no question in my mind that is his voice.”
Timothy Williams contributed reporting from New York.