ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Trayvon Martin's shooting death was just a blip on the local television news when it was first reported on a soggy night in late February.
But the questions the 17-year-old's death raised over the following weeks about gun control, race and equal justice under the law helped make it Florida's top story of 2012, well ahead of Florida's election woes which finished second, according to a poll of newspaper editors conducted by The Associated Press.
Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman during a confrontation in a gated community in the Orlando suburb, Sanford. Zimmerman has claimed self-defense under Florida's controversial "stand-your-ground" law, which gives broad legal protection to anyone who says they used deadly force because they feared death or great bodily harm.
The former volunteer claimed Martin tried to reach for Zimmerman's gun during a struggle. Zimmerman is pleading not guilty to second-degree murder, and his trial is set for the middle of next year.
The shooting death originally was covered in a routine crime-blotter manner. But as Martin's parents grew frustrated over the lack of an arrest, they went public with their criticism of the investigation by the Sanford Police Department. The story gained international attention after the Sanford Police Department released 911 calls of neighbors reporting the shooting. Cries for help could be heard on the 911 calls. Martin's parents claimed they were from their son, proving that he was being attacked. Zimmerman's father said he had no doubts the cries were those of his son, proving that he was acting in self-defense.
Soon, Martin's face was everywhere: on T-shirts, on placards raised at protests around the nation demanding Zimmerman's arrest and on television shows around the world. President Barack Obama weighed in on the shooting. Thousands of protesters at demonstrations wore hoodies similar to what Martin wore when he was fatally shot, and Rep. Bobby Rush donned a hoodie during a speech on the House floor to deplore his death.
Martin's death was the first shooting of 2012 to raise questions about the role of guns in U.S. society in a year in which the massacre of school children in Connecticut and movie patrons in Colorado have pushed the issue to the forefront. The 44-delay in Zimmerman's arrest also raised questions about race and equal justice under the law. Martin's parents said Zimmerman would have been arrested on the spot if he had been black and Martin had been white. Sanford police officials said their hands were tied in arresting Zimmerman on the spot because of the "stand your ground" law. Zimmerman wasn't charged with a crime until the investigation was transferred to the office of Jacksonville's prosecutor.
Civil rights leaders Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Ben Jealous took up Martin's cause and talked about shaping it into a movement to challenge "stand your ground" laws around the nation.
These news items rounded out the top 10 stories of the year:
2. Florida's long ballot and the shortening of early voting days were blamed for long lines at Florida's polling places, where some voters waited as long as seven hours. Delays in counting votes also were prevalent in South Florida counties, and Florida's 29 electoral weren't officially given to Obama until four days after Election Day. Gov. Rick Scott has urged lawmakers to review election laws to determine if changes are needed. Critics say a 2011 law that reduced early voting days, as well as a ballot packed with 11 constitutional amendment questions, contributed to Florida's election problems.
3. Thirteen Florida A&M marching band members were charged in connection to drum major Robert Champion's hazing death in 2011. Fallout from Champion's death reverberated throughout the year. University officials enacted a long line of new policies, including new requirements for band membership and new requirements for all students at the school. The school's longtime band director and university president also resigned. Champion's parents filed a lawsuit contending university officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean had proposed suspending the Marching 100 band just days before their son died. The lawsuit also alleges that school officials fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies.
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