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City rejects resignation of police chief in Trayvon Martin controversy

The Sanford city commission rejected the resignation of the police chief criticized for the way he handled the Trayvon Martin case.

The resignation was rejected Monday by a 3-2 vote, with the majority blaming outsiders for the recent uproar. City commissioners said they want to wait for the results of a federal investigation to decide if they will accept Chief Bill Lee's resignation, which could take months.

"The city commission spoke," city manager Norton Bonaparte said. "They were not ready to have the resignation. So we'll move forward."

Criticism of Lee was fast and fierce after it was learned that police did not initially charge George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer who says he shot Martin, 17, in self-defense.

Florida law gives people broad leeway to use lethal force if they believe their lives are in grave danger. The Feb. 26 shooting sparked protests nationwide, as well as debates about the laws and race. Martin was black; Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother.

Lee, who remains on paid leave, temporarily stepped down as police chief on March 22, saying he wanted to let tensions cool. The city will likely use an interim police chief. 

"The city commission spoke. They were not ready to have the resignation. So we'll move forward."

- Norton Bonaparte, city manager

The lack of an arrest in the Martin case led to protests across the nation and spurred a debate about race and the laws of self-defense. Zimmerman's father is white and his mother is from Peru. Martin was black. The shooting also led to the local prosecutor recusing himself from the case, prompting the governor to appoint special prosecutor Angela Corey, who eventually charged Zimmerman.

The majority of commissioners Monday blamed the polarization over the Martin case and its handling by the police department on outside groups. Lee's supporters wore "Bring Back Billy" T-shirts to the meeting, though there were detractors as well.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised," said Velma Williams, the lone black representative on the commission who voted to accept the resignation.

Earlier Monday, Zimmerman, who slipped out of jail on $150,000 bail in the early morning darkness, went back into hiding and likely fled to another state to avoid threats as he awaits his second-degree murder trial.

Martin was unarmed and was walking back to the home of his father's fiancee's home when Zimmerman saw him, called police and began following him. A fight broke out -- investigators say it is unknown who started it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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