ORLANDO, Fla. - The United States has opened a civil rights investigation into the shooting death of an unarmed black teen by a white neighborhood watch captain at a gated community in Florida.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the US attorney’s office for the Middle District of Florida are participating in the investigation of the death of Trayvon Martin, 17, according to a department statement.
College students around Florida rallied Monday to demand the arrest of 28-year-old George Zimmerman, who authorities say shot Martin during a confrontation in the gated community in Sanford, though Florida authorities may be hamstrung by a state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force.
Students held rallies on the campus of Florida A&M University in Tallahassee and outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center, where prosecutors are reviewing the case to determine if charges should be filed.
Zimmerman spotted Martin while patrolling his neighborhood on a rainy evening last month and called 911 to report a suspicious person. Against the advice of the 911 dispatcher, Zimmerman then followed Martin, who was walking home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles in his pocket.
“This guy looks like he is up to no good. He is on drugs or something,’’ Zimmerman told the dispatcher from his SUV. He added that the black teen had his hand in his waistband and was walking around looking at homes.
Zimmerman said the shooting was in self-defense. His father said Zimmerman is Hispanic and is not racist.
“I don’t think a man who exited his vehicle after the 911 dispatcher told him to stay inside the car can claim self-defense,’’ Carl McPhail, a 28-year-old Barry University law school student, said at the Sanford rally.
The 70 protesters at the Sanford rally chanted “What if it was your son?’’ and held posters saying, “This is not a race issue.’’ Many carried Skittles.
Martin’s parents and other advocates have said the shooter would have been arrested had he been black.
“You would think that Sanford is still in the 1800s claiming that this man can call self-defense for shooting an unarmed boy,’’ said restaurant owner Linda Tillman, who also was at the Sanford rally.
The case has garnered national attention, and civil rights activist Al Sharpton and radio host Michael Baisden planned to lead a rally Thursday in Sanford.
US Representative Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, asked that the US Department of Justice review the case, and White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday during a briefing that officials there were aware of what happened.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin’s family,’’ Carney said, adding that the White House would not wade into a local law enforcement matter.
Prosecutors may not be able to charge Zimmerman because of changes to state law in 2005. Under the old law, people could use deadly force in self-defense only if they had tried to run away or otherwise avoid the danger.
The changes removed that duty to retreat and gave Floridians, as the law is written, the right “to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force,’’ if they felt threatened. The changes also meant people could not be prosecuted in such instances.
Prosecutors can have a hard time making a case if there is no one else around to contradict a person who asserts self-defense, said David Hill, a criminal defense lawyer in Orlando. Thus far, Sanford police have said there is no evidence to contradict Zimmerman’s story.
“If there is nobody around and you pull a gun, you just say, ‘Hey, I reasonably believed I was under imminent attack. Hey, sorry. Too bad. But you can’t prosecute me,’ ’’ Hill said, in irony.
Gun control advocates said the case is emblematic of permissive gun laws in Florida, which was among the first states to allow residents to carry concealed weapons.
Florida was the first state to pass a “stand your ground’’ law, which has been dubbed a “shoot first’’ law by gun control advocates.
About half of all states have similar laws, said Brian Malte, legislative director of the Brady Campaign, which describes itself as the nation’s largest organization dedicated to the prevention of gun violence.
Last week, Martin’s parents called on the FBI to take over the investigation, saying they no longer trusted the Sanford Police Department.
Sanford police Sergeant David Morgenstern said the department stands by its investigation but welcomes help from any outside agency.
Several Sanford residents who spoke about the case Friday said they think there would have been an arrest already if the shooter had been black and the deceased had been white.