April 2, 2012 / 10:50 PM / 8 years ago

Prosecutor denies interfering in Florida shooting case

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida prosecutor who removed himself from the investigation into the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin denied on Monday that he quashed police intentions to charge the shooter with manslaughter.

The sun sets on a street side memorial for Trayvon Martin in front of The Retreat at Twin Lakes community in Sanford, Florida April 2, 2012. George Zimmerman will surrender to authorities if he is charged in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, his attorney said on Monday. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, fatally shot Martin on the night of February 26, saying he had acted in self defense. Police released him without charge and said there was no evidence to contradict Zimmerman's story that he was attacked by Martin, 27. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

State Attorney Norm Wolfinger asked the U.S. Justice Department civil rights division to disregard a letter it received from lawyers for Martin’s family which referred to reports that Wolfinger interfered in the police investigation.

The letter contained “outright lies,” Wolfinger said.

George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch volunteer, shot and killed 17-year-old Martin on February 26 in Sanford, Florida, claiming self defense. Police did not arrest Zimmerman, saying evidence had failed to contradict his story that he was attacked by Martin.

The racially charged case has prompted demonstrations around the United States demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. The Justice Department has agreed to review the investigation by Florida state and local authorities.

ABC News reported last week that Sanford police detective Chris Serino, unconvinced by Zimmerman’s story of self-defense, wanted to charge him with manslaughter, but was overruled by Wolfinger’s office.

A separate report by news website TheGrio.com, unconfirmed by Reuters, said Wolfinger left his home the Sunday night of the shooting to meet with Sanford police in person.

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the Martin family, asked the Justice Department in a letter on Monday to investigate those reports. Though the letter reported the events without attribution, Crump told Reuters his information came from the media reports and he did not have independent verification.

Wolfinger had declined all comment since removing himself from the case on March 22, but fired back in a statement on Monday.

“I am outraged by the outright lies contained in the letter by Benjamin Crump,” Wolfinger said. “I encourage the Justice Department to investigate and document that no such meeting or communication occurred.”

Wolfinger said last month he removed himself from the case in the hope of “toning down the rhetoric.”

That same day, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee also stepped aside, saying “my involvement in the matter is overshadowing the process.” The city commission governing Sanford had passed a motion of “no confidence” against Lee the night before.

Florida Governor Rick Scott named a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, to replace Wolfinger on the shooting investigation. Corey has yet to say if she intends to charge Zimmerman, who remains free but in hiding.

Lynne Bumpus-Hooper, a spokesman for Wolfinger, said the state attorney never spoke with Lee on the night of the shooting. Instead Sanford police consulted that night with Kelly Jo Hines, the prosecutor on call, Bumpus-Hooper said. She declined to say what was discussed.

“Police officers can make an arrest at virtually any dadgum point they feel they have enough probable cause to make an arrest,” Bumpus-Hooper said. “They do not need our permission and they do not seek our permission.”

Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Barbara Liston. Editing by David Adams and David Brunnstrom

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