The US police chief who has been bitterly criticised for not arresting a neighbourhood watch volunteer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager and the county prosecutor both left the case, with the chief saying that he is temporarily stepping down to let passions cool.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s decision came less than a day after city commissioners gave him a “no confidence” vote, and after a couple of weeks of protests and uproar on social media websites.
Mr Lee has said evidence in the case supported George Zimmerman’s assertion that the February 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was in self-defence.
“I do this in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to a city which has been in turmoil for several weeks,” Mr Lee said.
About three hours later, Governor Rick Scott announced that the local state lawyer, Norman Wolfinger, had recused himself from the case.
In a letter to Mr Scott, Mr Wolfinger said that while he thought he could fairly oversee any prosecution that develops in the case, his recusal was aimed at “toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation”.
Mr Scott appointed Angela B. Corey, the state lawyer for the Jacksonville area, to take over the case.
Mr Scott also appointed a task force led by Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll to conduct hearings on the case and to make recommendations for any changes to state law or procedures. Ms Carroll is African-American.
Mr Martin was returning from a trip to a convenience store when Mr Zimmerman started following him, telling police dispatchers he looked suspicious. At some point, the two got into a fight and Mr Zimmerman pulled out his gun.
Mr Zimmerman told police Mr Martin attacked him after he had given up on chasing the teenager and was returning to his sport utility vehicle. Police said the 28-year-old Mr Zimmerman is white; his family says he is Hispanic.
The shooting ignited resentment toward the police department in this Orlando suburb for not making an arrest. Civil rights groups have held rallies in Florida and New York, saying the shooting was unjustified.
Thousands at a rally led by civil rights leader Al Sharpton at a Sanford park demanded more be done.
The police chief stood behind his agency’s investigation.
It was not immediately how long the police chief would step aside. Mr Martin’s parents said that was not enough, and that Mr Zimmerman should be taken into custody.
“We want an arrest, we want a conviction and we want him sentenced for the murder of my son,” Mr Martin’s father, Tracy, said to the fiery crowd of rally goers.
Some people said the police chief should step down for good.
News of the police chief’s decision to step aside spread quickly among the protesters, many of whom showed up more than two hours before the start of the rally. They chanted: “The chief is gone. Zimmerman is next.”
Some carried signs that said: “100 years of lynching, justifiable homicide. Same thing.” Others sold T-shirts that read: “Arrest Zimmerman.”
The Justice Department and FBI have opened a civil rights investigation, and the prosecutor before he quit the case convened a grand jury on April 10 to determine whether to charge Mr Zimmerman.