Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by Richard Zimmerman, 28, in Sanford.

By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Almost three weeks have gone by since a teenager lay dead on a Sanford pathway with nothing more lethal in his pockets than a bag of Skittles — and local authorities have not brought charges against the neighborhood watch leader who shot him.

But in that time the story has gone national, with the boy’s parents and advocates planning to rally in the central Florida town on March 26 to demand action, perhaps from the U.S. Justice Department, if charges are not filed by then.

“This is a wake-up call for the state of Florida!” declared televangelist Jamal Bryant of Baltimore. “We are going to shut Florida down until justice weighs down!”

The case is fraught with racial overtones and suspicions that the victim fell prey to racial stereotyping. Trayvon Martin, 17, was black. George Zimmerman, 28, has been widely described in the news media as white — though his family says he is Hispanic. The six-foot-three, 140-pound teen was wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman was carrying a Kel-Tec 9mm handgun.

It is also a test of Florida’s “stand your ground” law — one of the toughest self-defense laws in the nation. According to the statute, a person in Florida is justified in using deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Zimmerman, who was bleeding from the nose and back of the head when police found him, says he had followed Martin because he looked “suspicious.” When he went to question him, Zimmerman said, the teen jumped him. He maintains he acted in self-defense.

As CBS News reporter Julia Dahl writes, we may never know exactly what happened between the two on the night of Feb. 26. But that may not matter. All that counts is whether Zimmerman “reasonably” believed his life was in danger.

But what is reasonable? Ekow Yankah, an associate professor of criminal law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, says that to some people, it is reasonable to be suspicious of a young black man walking alone in the dark.

“We have to decide what counts as ‘reasonable’ to be afraid of, and nobody should pretend that that isn’t socially and culturally loaded,” says Yankah.

Gregory O’Meara, an associate professor of law at Marquette University School of Law, agrees.

“These ‘stand your ground’ laws license pistol-packing urban cowboys and paranoid people,” says O’Meara, who fought the passage of a similar law in Wisconsin. “We’ve all been trained to be afraid of black men, and if you’re afraid enough that justifies everything.”

Three neighbors, however, have told the Miami Herald that they heard what they believe to be “the last howl for help from a despondent boy, and believe the sequence of sounds shatters the notion that Trayvon was killed in self-defense.”

“This was not self-defense,” said one of those neighbors, Mary Cutcher, 31. “We heard no fighting, no wrestling, no punching. We heard a boy crying. As soon as the shot went off, it stopped, which tells me it was the child crying. If it had been Zimmerman crying, it wouldn’t have stopped. If you’re hurting, you’re hurting.”

Sanford police promptly disputed Cutcher’s statement, saying the witness initially gave an account to police that “was consistent” with Zimmerman’s version.

The case is generating wide interest on the Internet. More than 250,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org to “prosecute the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.”

The Orlando Sentinel noted that Sanford has a troubled racial history. Many there are saying that police and prosecutors would have acted faster if the shooter had been black and the victim white.

“By the police being slow-footed to arrest someone, it demonstrates that things are different for the black community,” said Vibert White, a history professor at the University of Central Florida. “They have ignited a powder keg by being slow, by being indecisive and by being arrogant by not arresting this man.”

Zimmerman’s father, meantime, says that “the media portrayal” of his son as a racist is cruel and misleading.

George Zimmerman is Hispanic and grew up in a multi-ethnic household, 64-year-old Robert Zimmerman said in letter he delivered to the Orlando Sentinel.

“He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever,” the letter said.