SANFORD, Fla. — An unarmed black teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch captain told his girlfriend moments before he was killed that he was being followed, a lawyer said Tuesday as federal and state prosecutors announced they would investigate.
The girl later heard Martin say, “Why are you following me?” Another man asked, “What are you doing around here?’“ attorney Benjamin Crump said.
The phone call that recorded Martin’s final moments was disclosed as the U.S. Justice Department opened a federal civil rights probe into the Feb. 26 shooting and the local prosecutor convened a grand jury to investigate.
The neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, has not been charged and has said he shot Martin, who was returning to a gated community in Sanford after buying candy at a convenience store, in self-defense after Martin attacked him. Police say Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.
The case has ignited racial tensions in this Orlando suburb of 53,500 people, sparking rallies and a protest in Gov. Rick Scott’s office on Tuesday. The Rev. Al Sharpton was joining Sanford city leaders at a town hall meeting later Tuesday to discuss the investigation.
Police say Zimmerman was bleeding from his nose and the back of his head, and told police he had yelled out for help before he shot Martin.
Crump told reporters Tuesday that Martin cried out when a man bearing a 9mm handgun came at him.
Martin called his 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami several times on Feb. 26, including just before the shooting, Crump said. The discovery of the lengthy conversations, including one moments before the shooting, was made over the weekend by Martin’s father by checking his son’s cell phone log, Crump said.
“She absolutely blows Zimmerman’s absurd self-defense claim out of the water,” Crump said of Martin’s girlfriend, whose name was withheld.
Martin, who was in town from Miami to visit his father in Sanford, told the girl on his way back from the store he’d taken shelter the rain briefly at an apartment building in his father’s gated community, Crump said. Martin then told the girl he was being followed and would try to lose the person, Crump said.
“She says: ‘Run.’ He says, ‘I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast’,” Crump says, quoting the girl.
After Martin encountered Zimmerman, the girl thinks she heard a scuffle “because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech,” Crump said. The phone call ended before the girl heard gunshots.
The last call was at 7:12 p.m. Police arrived at 7:17 p.m. to find Martin lying face down on the ground.
Zimmerman was handcuffed after police arrived and taken into custody for questioning, but was released by police without being charged. Police have interviewed Zimmerman two times since then.
Crump called the treatment patently unfair and asked if Martin would have received the same treatment if he had been the shooter.
“We will not rest until he is arrested. The more time that passes, this is going to be swept under the rug,” Crump said.
Crump said he plans to turn over information about the call to federal investigators; a grand jury in Seminole County is also likely to subpoena the records. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is also involved in the state case.
Former federal prosecutors said there are limitations to a Justice Department civil rights probe, which typically would involve a sworn law enforcement officer accused of abusing his authority.
In this case, they said, it’s not clear whether Zimmerman had any actual law enforcement authority or if the Sanford Police Department did anything improper. Zimmerman had a permit to carry a gun, but it was not required for his neighborhood watch patrol.
“I think the community has the feeling that there’s some type of cover-up,” said Jeffrey Sloman, former U.S. attorney in Miami. “At least the department’s involvement makes sure it gets some review. He wasn’t a police officer. I’m sure that this is going to be a tough case to prosecute.”
Sanford officials went to Washington Tuesday to meet with Justice Department officials handling the probe, and the department’s Civil Rights Division said its community relations unit would go to Florida this week to “address tension in the community.”
“If we made missteps over the course of this, we’re going to correct those actions,” Mayor Jeff Triplett said. “If we made an error, I want someone to tell me. There’s people who do this for a living. I don’t. I want someone to hold us to that standard.”
Authorities may be hamstrung by a state “Stand Your Ground” law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force and does not require a retreat in the face of danger. Asked Tuesday if that law needs change, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said “it’s always positive to go back and think about existing laws.”
Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will meet April 10 to consider evidence in the case.
An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman has drawn more than 500,000 signatures at website Change.org. About 50 defense attorneys and protesters filled the lobby in the governor’s office Tuesday to deliver a letter seeking an independent investigation and a task force to study racial profiling. They applauded when Scott came out of his office to talk to them.
“I will make sure justice prevails,” Scott said. “I’m very comfortable that (state law enforcement) is going to do the right thing. They’re not going to let somebody do something wrong and get away with it.”
Sharpton is attending the town hall meeting at a local church Tuesday night to discuss how the investigation is being handled. Students rallied on Monday at Florida A&M University’s campus in Tallahassee and outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.
Associated Press writers Brendan Farrington and Brent Kallestad in Tallahassee, Fla., and Suzanne Gamboa in Washington contributed.