Sanford, Fla., chief to resign; officials must OK

By Mike Schneider

Associated Press

Published: Monday, April 23 2012 1:51 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this April 20, 2012 file photo, George Zimmerman appears before Circuit Judge Kenneth R. Lester Jr. during a bond hearing in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman's attorney was still working Sunday to secure the money for bail and a safe place for the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer to stay. But residents in Sanford, where Martin was killed, don't expect a ruckus once Zimmerman is released.

Orlando Sentinel, Gary W. Green, Pool, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

ORLANDO, Fla. — The police chief in the city where Trayvon Martin was shot is set to permanently step down from his post after enduring strong criticism of his department's decision not to arrest George Zimmerman.

City commissioners — who previously gave Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee a vote of "no confidence" — must approve the resignation before it can formally take effect. They were set to take a vote on it Monday afternoon.

Lee had temporarily stepped aside as chief March 22 after enduring strong criticism over his department's handling of the Martin case. Police did not initially charge 28-year-old George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed he shot the 17-year-old Martin in self-defense. Prosecutors later charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

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

Florida law gives people broad leeway to use lethal force if they believe their lives are in grave danger. The Feb. 26 shooting sparked protests nationwide, as well as debates about the laws and race. Martin was black; Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother.

Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder earlier this month, 44 days after the fatal shooting. He was released from the Seminole County Jail in the middle of the night on $150,000 bail.

The neighborhood watch volunteer was wearing a brown jacket and blue jeans and carrying a paper bag as he walked out of the Seminole County jail around midnight Sunday. He was following another man and didn't look at photographers gathered outside. The two then got into a white BMW and drove away.

Zimmerman did not speak as he left the suburban Orlando jail.

His ultimate destination is being kept secret for his safety. He could leave Florida.

Martin's parents have a "heavy heart" now that Zimmerman has been released from jail, said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for the 17-year-old's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton.

"They hope his freedom is temporary because the pain he has caused this family is permanent," Crump said Monday.

Zimmerman fatally shot Martin inside the gated community where Zimmerman lived. Martin was unarmed and was walking back to the home of his father's fiancee when Zimmerman saw him, called 911 and began following him. A fight broke out — investigators say it is unknown who started it.

Zimmerman says Martin, who was visiting from Miami, attacked him. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense, citing Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gives broad legal protection to anyone who says they used deadly force because they feared death or great bodily harm.

Zimmerman was not charged for more than six weeks, sparking national protests led by Martin's parents, civil rights groups, and the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Martin was black; Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is from Peru.

Residents in Sanford hadn't been expecting a ruckus once Zimmerman was released.

City commissioners said they hadn't received calls from nervous residents. Protesters didn't show up outside the jail. And talk at one local coffee shop seldom focused on the case.

"It's just kind of a non-issue now," said Michele Church, a server at Mel's Family Diner. "That's pretty much all anybody in Sanford wanted, was an arrest, so it could be sorted out in the court system."

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