Published March 24, 2012
SANFORD, Fla. – A lawyer advising George Zimmerman -- the Florida man who shot dead teenager Trayvon Martin in what he claims was self-defense -- denied Friday that his client was a racist, but shed little light on what led to the deadly confrontation.
Trayvon, 17, was shot and killed Feb. 26 as he walked in a Sanford gated community where he was staying with his father. Zimmerman claimed he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested or charged, leading to widespread outcry and protests.
Lawyer Craig Sonner said he had not discussed the details of the incident with Zimmerman -- who is in hiding, but has not left the U.S. -- but dismissed claims of a possible racial slur during a 911 call made before Zimmerman and the African-American Martin came into contact.
"I don't believe he did utter a racial slur," Sonner said on CNN, after admitting he had not heard the phone call in question. He said the fact that Zimmerman and his wife had mentored African-American children backed his belief that the 28-year-old was not a racist.
He said he had advised Zimmerman to cooperate with new investigations into the incident, which were launched in the wake of protests that began in Florida and have spread as far away as New York.
He welcomed those investigations and said, "Let's look at the facts. The ultimate issue is that some kind of scuffle took place. The ultimate issue is 'was it self-defense?'"
Sonner said in a subsequent CNN interview that Zimmerman was in hiding after receiving death threats, adding that he himself had also received threats within hours of being identified as Zimmerman's legal adviser.
His comments came as Florida State Attorney Angela Corey -- appointed Thursday by Gov. Rick Scott to lead a new investigation -- began gathering evidence in the case. A grand jury is scheduled to convene to probe the shooting on April 10, but Corey's staffers told WFTV on Friday that a grand jury may not be used in the case.
Lead prosecutor Bernie De la Rionda said, "We're going to get to the truth, one way or another.
"We're going to do three things. First thing is review everything that's already been done. Second thing is determine what else needs to be done from our opinion. And then we'll make a decision."
Jacksonville-based Corey replaced local prosecutor Norm Wolfinger in the case and WFTV said several sources had confirmed that police had originally recommended manslaughter charges against Zimmerman, but that Wolfinger had not acted on their advice.
De la Rionda would not confirm the claim, saying, "I'm not going to confirm or deny anything."
Sanford's police chief, Bill Lee, stood aside Thursday, saying that he had become a "distraction" to the investigation.
Scott has also announced the creation of a task force to investigate how an incident like Trayvon's death could be prevented in the future, while the Justice Department's civil rights division also is investigating the incident.
The case has also brought a focus, and criticism, on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows a person to use deadly force when threatened without attempting to retreat.
Asked about the law Friday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said, "I think it's always good to review laws."
"In this particular case based on my limited knowledge, it appears to me that this law does not apply to this circumstance. Stand your ground means stand your ground, it doesn't mean chase after somebody who has turned their back."
He added, "With the grand jury investigation, the Justice Department investigation taking place, the fact that the police chief has stepped aside, the process is in place now and we will get the facts shortly."