How the Sanford FL cops screwed up
- From: Tony Elka <shadowlane@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Wed, 16 May 2012 19:18:15 -0700
Trayvon Martin Case Shadowed by Series of Police Missteps
By SERGE F. KOVALESKI
Published: May 16, 2012
SANFORD, Fla. ? The killing of Trayvon Martin here two and a half months
ago has been cast as the latest test of race relations and equal justice
in America. But it was also a test of a small city police department
that does not even have a homicide unit and typically deals with three
or four murder cases a year.
An examination of the Sanford Police Department¹s handling of the case
shows a series of missteps ? including sloppy work ? and circumstances
beyond its control that impeded the investigation and may make it harder
to pursue a case that is already difficult enough.
The national furor has subsided for the moment. But as the second-degree
murder case against the defendant, George Zimmerman, moves from the
glare of a public spectacle to the grinding procedures of the court
system and eventual trial, the department¹s performance, roundly
criticized by Mr. Martin¹s family as bungling and biased, will be
scrutinized once again, though in more meticulous detail.
With doubts shadowing the quality and scope of the police work, the
prosecution and the defense will be left to tackle critical questions
even as they debate the evidence. And ultimately, what happened on the
rainy night of Feb. 26 may come to rest on the word of one man, George
Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who fired the
In interviews over several weeks, law enforcement authorities, witnesses
and local elected officials identified problems with the initial
On the night of the shooting, door-to-door canvassing was not exhaustive
enough, said a law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.
If officers had been more thorough, they might have determined that Mr.
Martin, 17, was a guest ? as opposed to an intruder ? at a gated
community called the Retreat at Twin Lakes. That would have been an
important part of the subjective analysis that night by officers sizing
up Mr. Zimmerman¹s story. Investigators found no witnesses who saw the
fight start. Others saw parts of a struggle they could not clearly
observe or hear. One witness, though, provided information to the police
that corroborated Mr. Zimmerman¹s account of the struggle, according to
a law enforcement official.
The police took only one photo at the scene of any of Mr. Zimmerman¹s
injuries ? a full-face picture of him that showed a bloodied nose ?
before paramedics tended to him. It was shot on a department cellphone
camera and was not downloaded for a few days, an oversight by the
officer who took it.
The vehicle that Mr. Zimmerman was driving when he first spotted Mr.
Martin was mistakenly not secured by officers as part of the crime
scene. The vehicle was an important link in the fatal encounter because
it was where Mr. Zimmerman called the police to report a suspicious
teenager in a hooded sweatshirt roaming through the Retreat. Mr.
Zimmerman also said he was walking back to the vehicle when he was
confronted by Mr. Martin, who was unarmed, before shooting him.
The police were not able to cover the crime scene to shield evidence
from the rain, and any blood from cuts that Mr. Zimmerman suffered when
he said Mr. Martin pounded his head into a sidewalk may have been washed
The police did not test Mr. Zimmerman for alcohol or drug use that
night, and one witness said the lead investigator quickly jumped to a
conclusion that it was Mr. Zimmerman, and not Mr. Martin, who cried for
help during the struggle.
A law enforcement official said officers did not seize Mr. Zimmerman¹s
vehicle because they thought that he had been on foot. They did not
realize that he had been driving until after his wife had moved the
vehicle, the official said.
The official said he believed that the police, in the hours after the
shooting, sought to determine whether Mr. Zimmerman was wanted for any
crimes. But he said they did not have a complete background check in
hand until midmorning the next day ? after Mr. Zimmerman had been
released. The records showed a domestic violence dispute with a woman
who identified herself as his ex-fiancée and a run-in with a state
alcohol agent, neither of which resulted in a conviction.
As for the officer at the scene who took the single full-face photo of
Mr. Zimmerman ? he suffered a nose fracture and other injuries during
the struggle ? he called an investigator ³in a panic² over his failure
to download it sooner, according to a person familiar with the case.
Other photos of Mr. Zimmerman¹s injuries were later shot at police
headquarters, although he had been cleaned up by paramedics by then.
Another investigator briefed on the case said officers should have been
more thorough as they knocked on doors in the neighborhood: they might
have learned Mr. Martin¹s identity early and that he was staying at the
town house of his father¹s girlfriend and was not trespassing. At the
time of the shooting, the girlfriend¹s 14-year-old son was waiting for
Mr. Martin to return from a 7-Eleven store, where he had bought a bag of
Skittles candies and a can of iced tea. Mr. Martin was not identified
until Monday morning, about 13 hours after he was killed, when the
police learned that his father, Tracy Martin, had reported him as
One witness said a police investigator twice declined her offer to show
him the close and unobstructed vantage point from a partly opened
bedroom window where she had watched and heard the struggle between Mr.
Martin and Mr. Zimmerman. The witness, who agreed to be interviewed on
the condition she remain anonymous because the investigation is active,
said the detective taped part of her account.
More than a month later, she and her lawyer, Derek Brett of Orlando, met
with two investigators from Ms. Corey¹s office. Mr. Brett said his
client was subject to only 15 minutes or so of "substantive questioning."
³This surprised me because when something is not done properly, in this
instance by the police, you sit down and do more than just fill in the
blanks,² he said.
She also recalled telling him that night that she was haunted by the
cries for help she believed came from Mr. Martin during the struggle.
But she said the investigator seemed to have already formed an opinion
about what had happened. He told her, she said, that it was Mr.
Zimmerman ? not Mr. Martin ? who was the one screaming, an assertion
that remains in dispute.
The official said that while the police never tested Mr. Zimmerman for
alcohol or drugs, such decisions are left to the discretion of
investigators based on whether they have reason to suspect the person is
under the influence. (The medical examiner in the case did a routine
toxicology screening of Mr. Martin; the results have not been made
At one department meeting a few days after Mr. Martin¹s death, a
representative from Mr. Wolfinger¹s office was told about the
inconsistencies the police saw in Mr. Zimmerman¹s account. The
prosecutor told them he understood that the police were trying to build
a case against Mr. Zimmerman, though they did not have adequate
evidence, according to a law enforcement official. It was decided that
more work was needed on the case.
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