Photo by Velvet McNeil
By Wesley Lowery
Special to NABJ
An attorney for the family of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin on Saturday shed light on his legal team’s strategy, the status of state and federal investigations and the outpouring of support for the case.
In a wide-ranging interview with board members of the National Association of Black Journalists, conducted via Skype, attorney Daryl D. Parks said that after separate meetings with federal and state authorities, he doubts Travyon’s killer will be indicted with a federal hate crime.
However, Parks said he is increasingly hopeful that the gunman, George Zimmerman, will face state criminal charges.
The 17-year-old Trayvon was killed Feb. 26 as he returned from a trip to a convenience store to his father’s finance’s house in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. Unarmed, carrying Skittles candy and ice tea and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, he was spotted by Zimmerman, 28, a captain of the community’s neighborhood watch.
In 911 tapes released by Sanford police, Zimmerman tells the operator that Trayvon was suspicious and appeared to be drugged. Zimmerman then pursued Trayvon on foot and after a struggle shot and killed the teenager, according to police.
Police say Zimmerman was not arrested because there was no evidence disputing his claim of self defense, prompting national outcry for state and federal officials to level charges.
Members of Trayvon’s family met with U.S. Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigations officials on Thursday afternoon.
“It was rather clear that the attorney general is quite aware of the situation, and they have devoted a great deal of resources to this matter,” Parks said. “It’s very clear that this is a very high priority for this administration.”
The Martin family also met briefly Friday with attorney Angela Corey, who was appointed as special prosecutor this week by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to head the state investigation.
The legal team representing Trayvon’s family plans to pursue civil litigation against Zimmerman and the community’s Homeowner’s Association.
Parks, who also is president of the National Bar Association, said that, ultimately, he does not believe the Justice Department will pursue federal hate crime charges against Zimmerman.
Even without hate crime charges, Parks said it’s clear that race played a role in Trayvon’s killing and that the family believes Sanford police actively covered up the racial component to protect Zimmerman.
“Trayvon’s situation is very tragic for this family and, I think, for every black person who lives in America,” Parks said. “We all know many situations where the person of color was not given the benefit of the doubt. That’s a subtlety in America that a lot of people don’t talk about.”
Parks said he hasn’t seen any photo or video evidence documenting any injuries sustained by Zimmerman during the altercation with Trayvon. He also said Trayvon’s girlfriend, whom attorneys say spoke with him just moments before his death, has yet to give a statement to police.
Zimmerman’s attorney, Craig Sonner, said earlier Saturday that if charges are filed against his client, defense attorneys will argue that Zimmerman was acting in self defense.
“George Zimmerman is trying to turn the story around,” Parks said. “At this point … you charge the guy. If he wants to try to explain it away, explain it to the jury.”
Parks said that Zimmerman’s legal team has not been in touch with the team representing the Martin family, and that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been in contact with Zimmerman.
In addition to a slew of civil rights leaders, various celebrities have reached out to the Martin family. Parks said the family received a call from Oprah Winfrey and is appreciative of the public support from various professional athletes.
Members of the Miami Heat, including Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, posted on their social media accounts pictures of the team wearing hooded sweatshirts in support of Trayvon’s family. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has three sons living in Sanford, has talked to the family by phone, Parks said.
“I don’t think it’s a political statement,” Parks said of the professional athletes who’ve expressed support. “Trayvon’s situation speaks to all of us. We’ve all had some situations where we felt that race played an issue … and they can identify with that.”
Park said Trayvon’s killing, which has prompted a national dialogue on racial profiling in the U.S., is not unlike the historic case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy murdered in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
Till’s death and the choice of his mother to have his casket open during the funeral prompted a national effort to eliminate Jim Crow laws.
“Most of us, especially those of us who live in the South, can clearly identify with this type of interaction with the police.” Parks said. “It’s not too often
that we as African Americans get to help America with its conscious just a little bit. This is our opportunity.”
Parks spoke from Atlanta to NABJ board members, who had gathered in Boston for a meeting.
Wesley Lowery is the Student Representative on the NABJ board of directors. He is a senior journalism major at Ohio University.