SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - The man who shot and killed an unarmed Florida teenager in a case that has sparked widespread public outrage told police the victim had punched him, knocked him down and slammed his head into the pavement repeatedly before he fired the fatal gunshot.
The account of neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, was published for the first time on Monday in the online edition of the Orlando Sentinel.
Police in Sanford, Florida, the Orlando suburb where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot dead on February 26, confirmed that the newspaper report appeared to be based on leaked information from someone inside the police department.
“The information in the article is consistent with the information provided to the State Attorney’s office by the police department,” the police said in a statement.
Zimmerman, a 28-year-old white Hispanic, has been widely criticized for following Martin, who was African American, and ignoring a police request that he stop doing so after calling the 911 emergency number to report that the young man in a “hoodie” hooded sweatshirt looked to be “up to no good.”
But in own his version of events, as outlined in the Sentinel report, Zimmerman had given up the chase and was walking back to his sport utility vehicle when Martin approached him from behind.
The two exchanged words before Martin punched the burly Zimmerman in the nose, sending him reeling to the ground. The teenager then began pummeling him and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times, the newspaper said.
At least one witness told police he saw Martin on top of Zimmerman who was calling for help, the newspaper said. It noted, however, that other witnesses had disputed from whom the cries were coming.
ABC News quoted a police source as saying that Zimmerman, in a written statement, claimed that Martin also tried to take his gun before the shot was fired.
Zimmerman’s attorney has said his client acted in self-defense. He has not been arrested and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which broadened the legal definition of self-defense when it was passed in 2005, provides people with immunity from detention or arrest if they use deadly force in their own defense without clear evidence of malice.
Whatever happened on that rainy evening in Sanford it came as Martin returned from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles candy and a can of Arizona iced tea.
Florida law enforcement has been under fire for weeks as protests decrying inaction in the case have spread to cities across the country.
More than 2 million people have signed an online petition calling for justice in the case, prompting Florida Governor Rick Scott on Monday to caution against a rush to judgment and say state authorities were still gathering facts.
“Justice will prevail,” Scott said in an interview with Reuters Insider in New York. “That’s what we all want. We want the ... facts and we want to know that justice happens.”
(Video: r.reuters.com/par37s )
Last Thursday, Scott said State Attorney Norman Wolfinger had agreed to remove himself from the investigation. Scott appointed another Florida prosecutor, Angela Corey, to handle the case. He also created a task force to study crime prevention and specifically the state’s Stand Your Ground law.
Asked if the case rose to the level of a possible hate crime, Scott said such a judgment would be premature.
Corey called for patience on Monday as her team of investigators continues looking into Martin’s killing.
“Justifiable use of deadly force has been asserted in this case, will continue to be asserted, which will make our job more difficult,” Corey told CNN, referring to the Stand Your Ground law.
Investigators from Corey’s office interviewed Martin’s parents on Monday and questioned neighbors who lived near the shooting scene.
Martin, a Miami high school student, was in Sanford, staying at the home of a friend of his father, because he had been suspended from school shortly before his death.
On Monday, a family spokesman said the 10-day suspension came after school officials discovered marijuana residue in a plastic bag inside Martin’s book bag.
“Regardless of Trayvon’s suspension, it had nothing to do with what happened on February 26,” Ryan Julison, the family spokesman, told reporters.
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, suggested in comments at a news conference that the marijuana residue report was aimed at smearing her dead child.
“They’ve killed my son and now they’re trying to kill his reputation,” she said.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton said Martin was being demonized in order to divert attention from Zimmerman’s actions.
“I said to the parents, as much as they were hurting, they will try to make your son a junkie, a thief, an assaulter and everything else before this is all over because they’ve done it in every case we’ve fought,” Sharpton said before entering a town hall meeting at the Sanford Civic Center on Monday.
Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, said he was not seeking revenge.
“We’re not asking for an eye for an eye. We’re asking for justice, justice, justice,” he said at the meeting.
Sanford City Commissioner Mark McCarty was taken to a hospital before the meeting began, apparently suffering from heart problems. McCarty, who has had heart problems in the past, successfully pushed last week for the no confidence vote that prompted Sanford’s police chief to temporarily step down.
Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Dan Trotta. Editing by Tom Brown and Christopher Wilson; Desking by Lisa Shumaker