SANFORD, Fla. -- Responding to widespread protests across the country, the U.S. Justice Department says it will investigate the shooting of an unarmed black teen in a case that has sparked racial tensions and could explore the growing number of states that allow people to use deadly force if they feel threatened.
George Zimmerman, 28, says he shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month in self-defence during a confrontation in a Florida gated community. Police have described Zimmerman as white; his family says he is Hispanic and not racist.
Zimmerman spotted Martin as he was patrolling his neighbourhood last month and called the police emergency dispatcher to report a suspicious person. Against the dispatcher's advice, Zimmerman followed Martin, who was walking back from a convenience store with snacks.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who represents Martin's parents, said the teenager was on the phone with his girlfriend when he told her he was being followed. Martin told the girl he'd taken shelter from the rain briefly at an apartment building in the gated community before continuing his walk to where he was staying with his father nearby.
"He says, 'Oh, he's right behind me, he's right behind me again,"' Crump says the girl told him. "She says, 'Run.' He says, 'I'm not going to run, I'm just going to walk fast.' She hears Trayvon say, 'Why are you following me?' Other voice says, 'What are you doing around here?"'
She told Crump they both repeated themselves and then she thinks she heard Zimmerman push Martin "because his voice changes like something interrupted his speech." She heard an altercation and then the phone call was cut off.
Within moments, according to Crump's timeline, Martin was shot. She didn't hear the gunfire.
The case has drawn national attention. College students around Florida rallied Monday to demand Zimmerman's arrest. An online petition urging local authorities to prosecute Zimmerman has drawn more than 500,000 signatures.
The Justice Department said in a statement late Monday the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office will join in the agency's investigation.
In a statement released Tuesday, Seminole County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger said a grand jury will convene April 10 to consider the case. He urged the public to be patient as the investigation unfolds.
But authorities may be limited by state law that allows people to defend themselves with deadly force.
Under the old law, people could use deadly force in self-defence only if they had tried to run away or otherwise avoid the danger. The new law has no duty to retreat, and it gives a person the right "to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force," if he or she feels threatened.
Florida was the first state to pass a "Stand Your Ground" law, which has been dubbed a "Shoot First" law by gun control advocates.
About half of all U.S. states now have similar laws, said Brian Malte, legislative director of the Brady Campaign, which describes itself as the nation's largest organization dedicated to the prevention of gun violence.
Martin's parents and other advocates have said the shooter would have been arrested had he been black. "You would think that Sanford is still in the 1800s, claiming that this man can call self-defence for shooting an unarmed boy," restaurant owner Linda Tillman said.
Prosecutors can have a hard time making a case if no one else is around to contradict a person who claims self-defence, said David Hill, a criminal defence attorney. So far, police have said there is no evidence to contradict Zimmerman's claims.
-- The Associated Press