Florida prosecutor taps experts to review 911 calls in Trayvon Martin shooting

Posted March 27, 2012, at 9:45 p.m.

The Florida special prosecutor investigating the Trayvon Martin shooting is bringing in independent voice analysis experts to enhance 911 tapes to learn more about the actions of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed the teen.

Angela Corey, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to investigate the shooting, said the experts will examine two potentially crucial aspects of the eight calls made to 911: a racial epithet Zimmerman might have muttered while talking to a dispatcher minutes before shooting the unarmed 17-year-old, and the screams in the background of calls that residents made to police during the incident.

In at least one call to police before officers arrived at the scene in Sanford, Fla., screams can be heard. Martin’s parents say the voice is their son yelling for help; a friend of Zimmerman’s has said it is Zimmerman screaming.

“The exact words and whose voice is whose will be the critical issues,” Corey said in an interview.

The Justice Department and the FBI are also investigating the incident. Zimmerman’s 911 call, made moments before the shooting, is central to a case the federal government could bring under federal civil rights laws, Justice officials said.

Allegations have been made that Zimmerman used a racial epithet on the call, but the tape is unclear. If an epithet can be heard clearly on an enhanced recording, it could be evidence of a hate crime, the officials said.

On the night of the shooting, Sanford police’s lead homicide investigator in the case had recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter but was overruled by a state’s attorney, who said there was not enough evidence in light of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, according to ABC News.

At this stage in the probe, the FBI and the Justice Department are helping Florida investigators with resources but letting state prosecutors take the lead, law enforcement officials said. A Seminole County grand jury is scheduled for April 10.

Corey said a grand jury might not be necessary, suggesting that if she finds enough evidence to file charges, she could do so.

Martin’s family flew to Washington on Tuesday and attended a Capitol Hill briefing about racial profiling and state “Stand Your Ground” laws.

“Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested immediately for his own safety,” Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., said at the start of the forum. Among those in the packed hearing room was Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine, who in 1957 were the first black students to attend Little Rock Central High School.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Martin’s parents, also painted a fuller picture Tuesday of recent events in the teen’s life. He said Martin was suspended from his Miami high school three times over the past year.

Martin was staying with his father’s fiancee in a gated community in Sanford because he had been suspended for 10 days in February after an empty baggie containing marijuana residue was found in his book bag, Crump said.

According to the Miami Herald, a marijuana pipe was listed, along with the baggie, in a school report on the incident.

Martin was suspended four months earlier for writing graffiti on school grounds, the Herald reported. A school police investigator in October said that he saw Martin on a surveillance camera “ hiding and being suspicious” in an area of the school that was off limits to students.

The investigator said that after the graffiti incident, he went through Martin’s backpack, looking for the marker, the Herald reported. Instead, the officer said, he found 12 pieces of jewelry, including wedding bands and diamond earrings. He said he also found a watch and a screwdriver, which he described as a “burglary tool.”

Martin was suspended for the graffiti, according to the report. The school police confiscated the jewelry and sent photos to Miami-Dade police detectives to investigate. A spokesman for the Martin family said the family knew about the graffiti and an incident last year when Martin was suspended for tardiness. But he said the family did not know about the jewelry and screwdriver.

“The fact that this private, sensitive information about a dead teenager is being leaked to the media is reprehensible,” the spokesman, Ryan Julison, said in an interview.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported, black Democratic members of the Florida Legislature are demanding that a special session be called to consider whether to repeal the state’s seven-year-old “Stand Your Ground” law, which eliminated a person’s duty to retreat when threatened with serious bodily harm or death.

Sanford police have cited the law as the reason Zimmerman wasn’t arrested after the shooting. They are also demanding that a task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to examine the shooting and any changes needed to state law begin work immediately instead of waiting for the police investigation to conclude.

“Whether self-defense was a legitimate factor, the law remains intact — with all the same components still in place for more killings and additional claims of self-defense, warranted or not,” state Sen. Chris Smith wrote in a statement to the governor. “…I’m sure you will agree that delaying the work of the task force — possibly up to one year or longer — suits no purpose other than to allow more tragedies to unfold.”

But Scott and other Republicans have insisted that the state should wait until ongoing police investigations are completed.

Republican Rep. Dennis Baxley, one of the sponsors of the law, said that “when things have cooled off a little bit I think it’s worthy to sit down and say is there legislation that is needed.”

In Sanford Tuesday, the city manager said that hiring an outsider to run the police department is a priority to help cool tensions caused by Martin’s death and the investigation.

Manager Norton Bonaparte said officials were working with the nonprofit group Police Executive Research Forum to identify potential candidates.

Police Chief Bill Lee temporarily stepped down after outrage erupted over the police department’s handling of the shooting.

Darren Scott, a 23-year veteran of the Sanford Police Department, was named acting chief. Lee is still employed with the department and receiving his salary.

At a news conference Tuesday, Bonaparte and Scott refused to answer any questions about an information leak to the media. The leak contained an account by Zimmerman that said Martin was the aggressor in a fight leading up to the shooting. Officials have said they will investigate where the leak came from.

“We have a legal system in place and we ask that people let it take its course,” Darren Scott said. “I am concerned with everyone’s concerns, but I will not comment on the investigation.”

New Orleans officer resigns after Trayvon comments

The Associated Press also reported Tuesday that a New Orleans police officer has resigned after being suspended for posting a comment on a local television station’s website about the fatal shooting of Martin in which he suggested the Florida teen died like a “thug.”

Jason Giroir used his full name and identified himself as a New Orleans Police Department employee when he wrote, “Act like a thug die like one!” in response to a WWL-TV article about a rally supporting Martin.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas suspended Giroir indefinitely without pay Monday. On Tuesday, Giroir resigned after being told allegations against him had been sustained and a hearing to begin his termination was in motion.

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