On cusp of Zimmerman trial, Sanford readies for spotlight

Published June 9, 2013

Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett was at his oldest son's football game in Tampa, about 100 miles away from the city he leads, when he got the call one evening in March 2012 that tension was mounting over the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

Two weeks before, a sudden, explosive confrontation between a neighborhood watch volunteer and the unarmed Miami Gardens teenager had ended with Trayvon dead with a bullet in his chest and George Zimmerman defending his actions. And now, in the early spring of 2012, the city of Sanford was churning at the center of national narrative built, in part, upon the fault lines of race. In a matter of weeks, the quaint city in the northern shadows of Orlando had become a dateline for social unrest, for the consequences of Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law and for the historic mistrust between police and black communities.

"It was a whirlwind. It had reached a boiling point. It was surreal,'' said Triplett, a banker and part-time mayor who took a leave of absence to help manage the crisis. "The story has been characterized as the scab being pulled off an old wound in our community. I like to believe that out of tragedy came an opportunity for our city to have some discussions, to listen to our people. We are really working hard to go down this path together.''

Sixteen months after the shooting, on the eve of Zimmerman's second-degree murder trial, Triplett and other leaders talk cautiously about the long road of racial healing, all the steps taken to reunite — or unite — the community, from new commissions to pastor-led talks to a new police chief personally knocking on the doors of residents as a way of introduction. They hope the ambitious, citywide effort has made Sanford resilient enough to withstand the scrutiny that comes with reliving the ugliest details Trayvon's death in a high-profile, racially sensitive trial that is likely to stretch into summer.

Part of that strategy has been turning to the city's spiritual leaders to defuse simmering racial tension and guide the city to reconciliation. With the start of the trial, they will add courtroom observer to their role. About a dozen pastors, part of a larger group of clergy, are working with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Seminole County Sheriff's Office, and will attend the trial each day, then report back to their congregations and the public. The pastors, representing an ethnic and denominational cross-section of the area, will rotate among four reserved seats in the courtroom.

"We are going to be a witness, watch how the system works, watch the case unfold and share that,'' says the Rev. Charles Holt, of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in neighboring Lake Mary. "The role of the clergy in this case is to call on the community to be responsible in its response. This case and trial has the ability to divide."

It already has.

In February 2012, Zimmerman, 29, and Trayvon, 17, encountered each other in a gated townhouse community as the teenager returned from a convenience store. He was there visiting his father while suspended from high school. Zimmerman, who was not arrested for six weeks after the shooting, has always maintained he acted in self-defense, that he shot his 9mm semiautomatic gun during a violent, fatal struggle. The state is arguing Zimmerman followed Trayvon and shot him without cause.

Almost immediately, the case — and for some, the verdict — began to be viewed through the prickly prism of race: Zimmerman is a white Hispanic; Trayvon was African-American.

"There is going to be a precedent set, one way or the other. If the killer is exonerated, there is going to be a precedent set that certain people you can kill in America and not be held accountable. Or there is going to be a precedent set that shows how far we have come from the days of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers," said Benjamin Crump, attorney for the Martin family, referencing two key civil rights figures, an indication of the burden that he thinks the trial carries as a reflection of America and race.

In the weeks after the shooting, outrage grew over the delayed arrest, driven in part by national civil rights leaders and a massive social media movement. In April, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the NAACP's Ben Jealous led a march through Sanford with one message: Arrest Zimmerman. But for the locals who marched, many from the historically black neighborhood of Goldsboro on the western side of Sanford, the case tapped into years of lingering resentment and mistrust of the Police Department.

"We felt the shooting of Trayvon Martin should have merited an arrest immediately. That is what drove our actions, and now we are relying on the justice system,'' said Henry Sweet, 62, a longtime Sanford resident. "The case also served to highlight a number of unresolved shooting cases of African-American boys that we believed the police had not given enough attention to. The case spoke to a kind of injustice.''

News of the shooting, carried near and far by relentless media, came to symbolize much of what was wrong with race and police relations in the city. Sanford, perhaps unfairly, was thrust onto the national radar, cast as a throwback Southern city. The collateral damage included the firing in June 2012 of Sanford police Chief Bill Lee for his handling of the case. He had been in the job less than a year.

"We received national and international attention. We were getting calls asking if the city was burning down. Our answer is we are alive and open for business,'' City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr. says today. "There is work to be done but you can't paint the city with one broad stroke.''

In the lull between Zimmerman's arrest and his upcoming trial, city leaders took steps to ease racial tensions in the city of 53,000 where about one-third of residents are African-American. The city held a series of public meetings giving residents a platform to air their grievances.

And as part of a nine-point plan, city officials also asked the Justice Department to investigate Police Department practices for civil rights violations. The city established a community relations office blue-ribbon panel to review and suggest strategies to improve police community relations. That panel released its recommendations last week, which included hiring more officers, building better relationships with the community, raising salaries and additional training.

In introducing the nine-point plan last year, the city released a statement: "… not since the Rodney King case in 1991 have the press, religious organizations, social activist groups, civilian oversight groups and the public in general maintained such a high interest in the role, function and performance of a police department."

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The shooting of Trayvon weighed heavily on Holt, of St. Peters. The spiritual leader who had been living in Sanford for 12 years thought about the teen's death frequently. He considered the troublingly few details known about that rainy night and worried about what might happen to his community in the aftermath of the shooting, the trial and once the spotlight dimmed. So Holt turned to his faith, inviting pastors to Holy Cross Episcopal Church in downtown Sanford for a Good Friday worship and prayer service, weeks after Trayvon's death. About 60 pastors — white, black, Hispanic — from churches in the area answered the call.

"I just felt like our city needed prayer, that we needed to ask God to help guide us through this challenging moment,'' said Holt. "With all the attention we were getting, there was so much potential for divisiveness.''

That noon service became part of a larger movement to help the city heal with the Justice Department, city of Sanford and the Seminole County Sheriff's Office working together.

Among the ideas that came out of the early meetings: the formation of Sanford Pastors Connecting, the group of clergy charged with spreading a message of peace and encouraging dialogue among dissenting factions.

And on Monday, the pastors begin monitoring the trial from inside and out of the courtroom, serving as front-line reporters for their communities in the hope that a constant flow of accurate information from a trusted source will give Sanford residents a sense of relief.

For the trial, expected to last up to six weeks, the city has designated three public areas for "free speech" to accommodate the crowds expected to gather outside the courthouse.

"We recognize there will be a public response whether George Zimmerman is found guilty or not,'' says Bonaparte, the city manager.

He wouldn't offer specifics on the additional security measures for handling the response, noting only that "we are prepared for various scenarios.''

Holt said he is hopeful the public, from Sanford or elsewhere, will respect the verdict.

"This trial will either divide our community or bring us together,'' Holt said. "We can let the demons rule or the better angels rule. We have to make the choice.''