SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - Friends and supporters spoke out on Sunday on behalf of the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed teenager in Florida, saying he fears for his safety after receiving death threats.
George Zimmerman, who has claimed he shot Trayvon Martin on February 26 in self-defense, is staying at an undisclosed location after widely circulated death threats and word of a $10,000 bounty to find him, said legal adviser Craig Sonner, who said he would represent Zimmerman if charges are filed.
Fury over the shooting in the gated community of Sanford, Florida, of the 17-year-old boy, who was carrying an iced tea and a bag of Skittles candy, and the lack of an arrest or charges prompted demonstrations nationwide calling for authorities to take action.
On Sunday, supporters of Martin staged events at churches, where congregants were encouraged to wear hoodies, or hooded sweatshirts, like the one he was wearing when he was killed.
At Middle Collegiate Church in New York City, the minister and members of the congregation wore hoodies, pulling their hoods over their heads during prayers at a crowded service that made repeated reference to Martin’s killing as a symptom of the discrimination felt by young black Americans.
Jacqui Lewis, the church’s senior minister, gave a sermon in which she said people were “fed up with centuries of race-related hatred and fear in this country.”
“We will not rest until this disease called racism is stamped out,” she said, calling for Americans to mix more frequently with people from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures.
She asked congregants to mail packets of Skittles candy to the Sanford Police Department and post pictures of themselves on the Internet wearing their hoodies and holding signs saying: “I am not dangerous. Racism is.”
Martin was shot dead after Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic neighborhood watch captain, believed the young man walking through the gated community looked suspicious. Zimmerman followed him and an altercation ensued.
Friends of Zimmerman, who has not spoken to the media, said he was extremely upset about the shooting.
“I mean, he took a man’s life and he has no idea what to do about it. He’s extremely remorseful about it,” said his friend Joe Oliver.
“What makes all these people who are threatening George any better than the person they think he is?” he added. “You’ve got all these people wanting to lynch the man, and they don’t know the whole story.
“There are huge gaps that are being filled in and interpreted without evidence,” he said.
A candlelight vigil was planned for Sunday evening in Sanford, where civil rights activist Jesse Jackson was slated to appear. A rally of Martin supporters was also planned in Seattle.
While state and federal investigations are under way, the shooting has put a focus on so-called “Stand your Ground” laws, adopted first in Florida in 2005 and in at least 16 other states since.
Opponents call them “Shoot First” laws that put the burden on prosecutors to prove a shooting was not self-defense.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, called on Sunday for a Justice Department investigation into “Stand your Ground” laws to determine if they increase violence and prevent prosecutions of crimes.
“They’re all new. They’ve been passed very, very quickly and I think the states who passed them, if they find out the real facts, they may decide to repeal them,” Schumer said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“I have a lot of faith in our police and in our sheriffs and I don’t like a move to vigilantism,” Schumer said.
The incident has become part of the presidential campaign as well. Republican Rick Santorum, also on “Face the Nation,” called it “a heinous act.”
“We need to focus on being there to be supportive and for the family that’s going through this tragedy,” he said.
President Barack Obama talked about the case on Friday, saying it made him “think about my own kids.”
“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said of Martin, who was African-American.
Sonner said Zimmerman fears he is in danger. He cited a document circulating that has Zimmerman’s photo with the words “Wanted Dead or Alive.”
“I think to not take that seriously would be a mistake,” he said.
Florida Governor Rick Scott on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday promised a thorough investigation and said he had faith in the state attorney leading it.
Scott also said he was not aware of any requests for protection from Zimmerman, but would provide it if asked.
“If he feels unsafe, we’ll make sure nothing happens to him,” Scott said.
Sonner has said Zimmerman suffered a broken nose, a gash to his head and had grass stains on his shirt after the confrontation with Martin. Oliver said details about the altercation remain unclear, but he said Zimmerman told him he was not the aggressor.
The New Black Panther Party announced on Saturday it was offering a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman.
“We will reward that individual or group of people who take George Zimmerman into custody and we will deliver him to the authorities. They would be better off holding him than letting him out on the street because there is an angry mindset among black people,” said Mikhail Muhammad of the New Black Panther Party, a black political organization that takes its name from the radical movement of the 1960s.
Reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and Jonathan Allen in New York, Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst, Editing by Bill Trott and Stacey Joyce