Rev. Al Sharpton Holds Rally in Sanford For Trayvon Martin

Bill Lee Jr. said he had become a distraction

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Just hours after Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. temporarily stepped down, the Rev. Al Sharpton responded that he wants "permanent justice" in the fatal shooting of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin.

    Just hours after Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. temporarily stepped down, the Rev. Al Sharpton responded that he wants "permanent justice" in the fatal shooting of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin.

    "We did not come here for a temporary leave of absence. We came for permanent justice," Sharpton said. "From top to bottom, we don’t need temporary relief. We need permanent change."

    Lee stepped down amid mounting public criticism of his department's handling of the Martin shooting, and outrage that the man who shot the teenager has not been charged.

    Sanford Police Chief Temporarily Removes Himself From Position During Trayvon Martin Investigation

    [MI] Sanford Police Chief Temporarily Removes Himself From Position During Trayvon Martin Investigation
    Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. announced Thursday that he is temporarily removing himself as the city's police leader. He acknowledged that his presence as the department's chief had become a distraction amid growing public pressure for the arrest of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin's shooter.

    Sharpton spoke before an evening rally he held with Martin's parents at Fort Mellon Park in Sanford that was attended by thousands.

    About a half-hour into the rally, which began just after 7 p.m., word came that Gov. Rick Scott has appointed a special prosecutor to oversee the investigation into Trayvon Martin's death.

    Sanford Police Chief Temporarily Removes Himself From Position During Trayvon Martin Investigation

    [MI] Sanford Police Chief Temporarily Removes Himself From Position During Trayvon Martin Investigation
    Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. announced Thursday that he is temporarily removing himself as the city's police leader. He acknowledged that his presence as the department's chief had become a distraction amid growing public pressure for the arrest of Miami Gardens teen Trayvon Martin's shooter.

    The governor said he appointed Angela Corey, a prosecutor for the Jacksonville area, to lead the investigation after Norman Wolfinger, the state attorney for Seminole and Brevard counties, recused himself.

    Wolfinger wrote in a letter to Scott that while he believed he could fairly oversee any prosecution that develops in the case, his recusal was aimed at "toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation."

    Scott also appointed a task force led by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to hold hearings about the shooting and make recommendations for changing state laws and procedures.

    Sharpton told those gathered at the rally that "Zimmerman should have been arrested that night" and that police had probable cause.

    "You cannot defend yourself against a pack of Skittles and iced tea," he said. “Lock him up!”

    “What has happened here is not acceptable,” said Congresswoman Corinne Brown, whose district includes Sanford. “Here, nowhere in Florida, nowhere in the country, and nowhere in the world.”

    She said a hearing on hate crimes will be held in Washington on Tuesday. Two Justice Department officials said earlier this week that it would be difficult to prosecute the Martin case as a hate crime under federal law, however.

    “I want an arrest. I want a trial. I want a fair trial. That’s all I want,” Brown said, before asking the crowd if they wanted the same things. They replied "Yes!"

    Several pastors offered prayers early in the event. The Rev. Paul Right of Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford said a prayer for Trayvon Martin’s family, whose heart, he said, “has been shattered and broken," and asked for God's help in healing them.

    Earlier, Martin's father, Tracy Martin, said that "the temporary step-down of Bill Lee is nothing." He said he wants the man who shot his son to be arrested and convicted.

    Lee acknowledged that his presence as the department's chief had become a distraction amid growing public pressure for the arrest of George Zimmerman, 28, of Sanford, who told police he acted in self-defense when he shot Trayvon Martin, 17, in the chest on the night of Feb. 26.

    "While I stand by the Sanford Police Department, its personnel and the investigation that was conducted in regards to the Trayvon Martin case, it is apparent that my involvement is overshadowing the process," Lee said, only 10 months after coming on the job.

    Sharpton demanded earlier Thursday that Lee step down in the wake of the fatal shooting of Martin.

    Lee and his department have been heavily criticized for not charging Zimmerman in the case. Lee has said that Zimmerman's self-defense claim "was supported by physical evidence and testimony," and that his officers thus could not arrest him.

    Lee, 52, said that as a former homicide investigator, career law enforcement officer and a father, "I am keenly aware of the emotions associated with this tragic death of a child."

    "I'm also aware that my role as the leader of this agency has become a distraction from the investigation," Lee said.

    For that reason, he said, he is temporarily removing himself as chief "in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks."

    Captain Scott O'Connor will run the department for now, said City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr., who began the brief press conference Thursday afternoon. Bonaparte was under pressure to fire Lee.

    On Wednesday evening the Sanford City Commission voted 3-2 that it had no confidence in Chief Lee over his handling of the Martin shooting.

    Commissioner Velma Williams, who voted against Lee, implied then that if Bonaparte didn’t fire the police chief, she would review the city manager’s contract the next time it came up for renewal.

    Lee, a Sanford native, worked for 27 years as a deputy at the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, where he led its SWAT team, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

    He reiterated how he had presented the facts in the case to the State Attorney’s Office early last week. Police did “a thorough and fair investigation," Lee said March 12.

    "It is my hope the investigation process moves forward swiftly and appropriately through the justice system and that a final determination in this case is reached," he said.

    Bonaparte said Thursday's press conference would be the first of regular updates in the case.

    "What the city of Sanford wants more than anything for the Trayvon Martin family is justice," he said.

    Sharpton flew into Orlando early on Thursday. In an exclusive interview with NBC 6, Sharpton said he was asking for Lee to either step aside or be fired by Bonaparte, the city manager.

    "The least that should happen is the chief step aside until this is over, that's the least," Sharpton said. "Mr. Bonaparte ought to ask him to step aside, fire him. If the chief loved the city he serves, he would say, 'with all these questions, I voluntarily step aside until this is over.'"

    Sharpton was also asked about police claims that the shooter, Zimmerman, was returning to his car when the altercation started that would contrast the notion of Zimmerman starting the fight.

    "By them making that statement, is why the feds have to come in, cause they're admitting they're trying the case and decided they're believing Zimmerman rather than believing other witnesses," Sharpton said. "Their job is not to try the case."

    The activist will be holding Thursday night's rally at Fort Mellon Park at 7 p.m. The rally was scheduled to be held at First Shiloh Baptist Church, but due to an overwhelming response and to accommodate the expected attendees, had to move it to the park.

    Sharpton vowed to move forward with the rally after announcing that his mother, Ada, died early Thursday.

    "I started to cancel my trip, but then I thought about my mother, she would have wanted me to do this," Sharpton said. "I've been an activist since I was 14 ... so in memory of my mother, I'll be marching in Sanford today."

    At the late afternoon press conference, he said, "My mother raised me to stand up for justice. My mother would have been ashamed of me if I wasn’t here tonight. This mother has to bury her son," he said, referring to Sybrina Fulton. "It is natural, even if it is painful, for me to bury my mother.”

    Sharpton is the host of "Politics Nation" on MSNBC, which is also owned by NBCUniversal.

    The rally is just one of many held across the country over the past week following the shooting of the 17-year-old Martin in a gated community in Sanford nearly a month ago.

    In Liberty City Wednesday night, dozens of people marched at Sherdavia Jenkins Peace Park in support of the Martin family.

    Martin's parents were in New York's Union Square Wednesday night for a rally dubbed the Million Hoodie March. Their son was wearing a hoodie at the time of the shooting.

    "My heart is in pain, but to see the support of all of you really makes a difference," Fulton told the crowd.

    Martin was visiting with his father at his father's girlfriend's home in the gated community and had gone to buy a bag of Skittles and iced tea at a nearby convenience store and was walking back when the shooting happened.

    More than 1.4 million people have signed the Martin family's online petition demanding Zimmerman's arrest and prosecution.

    Wolfinger announced Tuesday that a grand jury would be investigating the case. It will convene April 10. The U.S. Justice Department and the FBI announced on Monday that they had also begun an investigation into the shooting.

    Lawyers at the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would be difficult to prosecute the case under federal law, according to the Washington Post.

    Before Thursday night's rally, Martin's parents with representatives from the Justice Department and the FBI to discuss the investigation.

    The rally – which brought out a crowd of about 8,000, according to the Orlando Sentinel – included what has become a familiar call and response in recent days.

    As a Sirius radio host said, "I am," those in the crowd responded, "Trayvon Martin."

    “We stand with you today, and all that you’re enduring. It’s not easy for you to be doing this," Miami Congresswoman Frederica Wilson told his parents. "We must all stand for justice for Trayvon Martin."