The police chief who sparked outrage by releasing accused murderer George Zimmerman without charge on the night he shot and killed the unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin has been sacked.
Bill Lee, head of the Sanford police department in central Florida, had lost the confidence of the community and was relieved of his duties with immediate effect, according a statement released on Wednesday night by Norton Bonaparte, the city manager.
“I have come to this decision in light of the escalating divisiveness that has taken hold of the city,” Bonaparte said. “After much thoughtful discussion and deep consideration for the issues facing the city of Sanford, I have determined the police chief needs to have the trust and respect of the elected officials and the confidence of the entire community.”
Lee was widely criticised for refusing to press charges against Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch captain who claimed he was acting in self-defence when he killed Martin, 17, during a confrontation in a Sanford gated community on 26 February.
Lee was already serving a paid leave of absence after stepping aside in March, one day after Sanford commissioners passed a vote of no confidence in him for his handling of the case. The following month, however, the city’s leaders refused to accept his resignation, saying they needed to review his performance further.
Lee said he considered his dismissal unfair. “It is disappointing that in spite of his steadfast commitment to fairness and waiting for the results of a review of the Sanford police department and its investigation of the Trayvon Martin case, city manager Bonaparte has chosen to exercise his rights under the employment contract to terminate my employment without cause,” he said in a statement.
“I continue to stand by the work performed by the Sanford police department in this tragic shooting, which has been plagued by misrepresentations and false statements for interests other than justice.
“As the case progresses through the justice system, the evidence will show that our investigation was a proper effort to find the truth and follow the law. This has already been validated by evidence that has since become public as well as by comments from the special prosecutor.”
In April Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, appointed state attorney Angela Corey as a special prosecutor to re-examine the case. She filed a charge of second-degree murder against Zimmerman, 28, who remains in the Seminole county jail.
Benjamin Crump, the lawyer for Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who campaigned for six weeks for Zimmerman’s arrest, welcomed news of Lee’s dismissal. “It’s our understanding that Sanford’s elected leadership felt that it was in the best interest to discharge Chief Lee in order to move on and rebuild community trust,” he said in an email to the Miami Herald newspaper.
“We agree and stand by that decision and will do whatever we can to co-operate with any pending internal investigations of the [police department] and in helping the city of Sanford through this purging and healing process.”
Lee, 52, had been in charge of the department of 140 officers for almost a year. Based on his 27-year career with the Seminole county sheriff’s office, he will receive just over a quarter of his $102,000 (£65,000) salary as a severance payment, plus owed holiday time.
Bonaparte said: “I wish Chief Lee all the best in his future endeavours. We need to move forward with a police chief that all the citizens of Sanford can support.”
Announcing his voluntary suspension in March, Lee conceded that he had become a “distraction” in a racially charged case that prompted widespread protests by civil rights groups. He said he was standing aside “in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks”.The protests ended only after Zimmerman was arrested and charged in April. He was bailed within days of his detention but ordered back to jail earlier this month when circuit court judge Kenneth Lester ruled he and his wife had lied about their finances.
Shellie Zimmerman, 25, faces a charge of perjury after she allegedly failed to disclose more than $135,000 in donations made to her husband’s personal website set up in the wake of the shooting.
The case has prompted a review of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows for the use of deadly force when a person feels their life is in danger.
Zimmerman’s trial is not expected until the middle of next year and he could be jailed for life if convicted. He faces a new bail hearing on 29 June.
His lawyer, Mark O’Mara, insists his client was the victim of an attack by Martin, who was carrying only sweets and a soft drink he bought at a local shop and was walking back to a house owned by the friend of his father.