While publicly saying one thing — that they did not have enough evidence to arrest George Zimmerman — Sanford police did essentially the opposite: filing paperwork saying they had enough to charge him with manslaughter.
It’s something the department kept secret for two months, according to documents recently released by the special prosecutor in the case.
Here are their words versus their actions on three key dates, all from one tumultuous week about two weeks after Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old:
At 4 p.m. March 12, Sanford police Chief Bill Lee Jr. stood in City Hall plaza in front of a hostile crowd and dozens of reporters and insisted his agency could not arrest Zimmerman because investigators had failed to establish probable cause, the minimal standard of evidence to justify filing a criminal case.
The next day, however, his agency sent prosecutors paperwork saying it did have probable cause and asked that they charge Zimmerman with manslaughter.
It was signed by lead Investigator Chris Serino and his boss, then-Sgt. Randy Smith, but it was the department’s official position and had the support of Lee, said Capt. Bob O’Connor, who oversees the department’s major-crimes division and also was part of the investigation.
The request was sent to State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, whose office then took over the investigation.
Three days later, on March 16, Lee and several Sanford officers involved in the case, including Serino, went over some of the details of their investigation with the media.
They insisted they were prohibited by law from arresting or charging Zimmerman because they didn’t have enough evidence to disprove his claim of self-defense.
“If we had arrested him,” Lee said that day, “we feel we would have violated his constitutional rights. … I’m not going to violate the trust and oath that I took and arrest somebody, violate their rights.”
Said Serino, “The best evidence we have is the testimony of George Zimmerman. … We did not have enough for an arrest warrant.”
Police and prosecutors use the same evidentiary standard — probable cause — whether they arrest someone at the scene of a crime, do it later using an arrest warrant or file a criminal charge directly without an arrest.
Lee, fired two weeks ago, would not discuss why he said one thing in public but had his agency quietly ask prosecutors to charge Zimmerman. A public-relations agency issued a short statement that it attributed to him:
“As I have stated consistently, at the time and based on the evidence and testimony we had, we did not have probable cause to make a physical arrest.”
His agency recommended the manslaughter charge on paper, the statement said, because without it, prosecutors would not have taken over the investigation.
A week and a half later, the investigation was out of Wolfinger’s hands as well. Gov. Rick Scott appointed Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, and on April 11, she charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder and had him arrested.
Department spokesman Sgt. David Morgenstern and Mayor Jeff Triplett both said they had no idea why Lee and Serino said one thing in public but filed paperwork saying the opposite.
At the time, Sanford police were being pummeled by critics who accused them of conducting an inept and biased investigation and covering up for a wannabe cop.
The most vocal at the time were local leaders of the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown and scores of local Black Sanford residents, some of whom accused the department of a long history of harassing Blacks and ignoring Black crime victims.
An estimated 400 people packed a Sanford church March 14 for a rally organized by a Black televangelist from Baltimore.
Much of the evidence gathered by Sanford police, including paperwork, photos, witness statements and videos, has since been released and gives a fuller picture of how much work the agency did and how fully the agency investigated Trayvon’s shooting.
Sanford police repeatedly canvassed the neighborhood looking for witnesses, handcuffed Zimmerman and took him to police headquarters, where they interrogated him that night before releasing him but kept his gun and clothes and took DNA samples.
They also re-interviewed him several times; had him undergo a voice-stress analysis, a lower-tech version of a lie-detector test; and aggressively challenged inconsistencies in his account.
It was the release by the special prosecutor on May 17 and June 26 of records documenting Sanford police work that revealed that when they handed off the case to prosecutors, police reported they had enough evidence to charge Zimmerman.