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Trayvon Martin case: use of Stand Your Ground law or pursuit of a black teen?

A grand jury in Florida and the US Justice Department will both probe the Feb. 26 shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin. Key questions: Did the alleged gunman racially profile Trayvon? And did he use the Stand Your Ground law appropriately?

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“He didn't stand his ground; he was hunting,” says Alan Lizotte, dean of the School of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany in New York.

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It also turns out that Trayvon was on the phone with a 16-year-old girl just before the incident, according to the lawyer for Trayvon's family, Ben Crump. At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Crump played a taped conversation with the girl, in which she recounted what her talk with Trayvon as he walked back to the house that day. 

“Why is this dude following me?” she says Trayvon asked. The girl said she suggested that he run, which he did. He stopped running for a moment, then saw Zimmerman again, she reported. At that point, he told her he was just going to walk fast, she recounted. Next, she said, she heard a man ask, “What you doing around here?” The call then ended, and she said she believes that was when Trayvon was pushed and his earpiece fell out.

Zimmerman's father, Robert Zimmerman, has said inferences that his son started the altercation are misleading and false. But as more evidence emerges, including revelations that police did not test Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol before releasing him after a short detention, the police department is coming under more and more criticism for its handling of the case. In the department's defense, Chief Bill Lee has said Zimmerman's bloody nose and bloody head supported his assertion that he was attacked and shot Trayvon in self-defense.

In other developments, voice and audio experts are combing through a series of 911 calls on Feb. 26 in which a voice can be heard calling for help before a shot rang out. The family says it's Trayvon's voice; police have said they believe it's Zimmerman calling for help.

“Because this case is so bizarre, how can [Justice] not do something about this, and at least investigate?” asks Mr. Lizotte. “If you don't look into why police say they can't charge him, what's left? Sort of a Wild West model for law enforcement, where if somebody draws on you first and you're faster, you're OK?”

In Florida, the lawmaker who sponsored the 2005 Stand Your Ground law said Monday that the statute was not intended to protect people who sought conflict, and some Florida legislators have vowed to hold hearings on whether to amend the law.

“No matter what your position is on [race or guns], nobody believes that your rights extend to the right to kill innocent and unarmed children on [public property],” says Professor Wright. “No member of the NRA would disagree with me on that.”

Others say that, as evidence has mounted, the case has become less about the Stand Your Ground law and more about a central civil rights question: If the racial roles had been reversed, would an arrest have been made?

“That's what civil rights statutes are there for, when, in fact, local law enforcement fails to protect the rights of citizens, especially when race seems to be implicated, as it certainly is in this case,” says Bob Cottrol, a law professor and gun rights expert at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.

RECOMMENDED: Gun Nation: Inside America's gun-carry culture 

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