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.
4. Tampa hosted the 2012 Republican National Convention, but unlike in other host cities, Tampa’s streets stayed eerily quiet during the weeklong convocation. Tampa had been gearing up for years to host the convention where Mitt Romney formally received his party’s nomination. Law enforcement made plans to manage tens of thousands of protesters and local businesses added staffers to handle the influx of conventioneers. But the threat of Hurricane Isaac kept protesters away, and local business owners complained that tight security resulted in blocked off streets and fenced-off sidewalks that discouraged delegates from patronizing their restaurants and shops.
5. It took four days of counting before the winner was declared, but President Obama won Florida’s 29 electoral votes after a hard fought campaign in the nation’s most populous swing state. Obama beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney 50 percent to 49.1 percent, a difference of about 74,000 votes. That was over the half-percent margin where a computer recount would have been automatically ordered unless Romney had waived it. As it turned out, Florida wasn’t even needed for Obama’s re-election win after Sunshine State voters had been told for month that their votes would make the difference in the race.
6. Wildfire smoke mixed with fog blanketed six-lane Interstate 75 near Gainesville in an early January morning, resulting in a massive pileup that killed 11 people. Highway officials had closed the highway after the initial blanketing from smoke, but it was then reopened shortly afterward. Within a half hour, the first of six separate fatal crashes began, involving at least a dozen cars, pickup trucks and a van, six semitrailer trucks and a motorhome. Eleven people died, and 18 others were hospitalized. An investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found errors but no criminal violations in the decisions that were made to reopen the highway. The Florida Highway Patrol defended its actions.
7. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld key parts of Obama’s health care overhaul, rejecting an appeal by Florida and other states. Florida officials must decide whether to expand its Medicaid rolls to offer coverage to more residents and whether to set up a state-run health exchange or allow the federal government to run the program. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a former hospital chain executive, has been a vocal critic of the health care law. He softened his stance after Obama’s re-election, signaling he wants to work together with federal officials, but is worried about the cost to taxpayers.
8. Florida voters rejected eight of 11 constitutional amendments on November’s ballot. The rejected amendments included proposals pushed by conservatives to restrict abortion, allow taxpayer funding of religious schools, cap state revenue and put the state on record as opposed to Obama’s health care overhaul. The three amendments that won 60 percent approval, which all amendments must get to pass, were simple and easy to understand. They offered property tax breaks targeted to groups difficult to oppose: disabled veterans, low-income seniors and spouses of military personnel and first responders who have died while on duty.
9. Hunting Deutsch, the executive director of Florida’s jobs agency, abruptly resigned in December after eight months on the job when questions were raised about jobless benefits he received before he was hired. Gov. Rick Scott named his general counsel to take over the job, becoming the third person to lead the Department of Economic Opportunity which was created a year ago. Questions were raised about unemployment compensation Deutsch received from September 2009 through May 2011. That period included a time he was traveling in Europe and presumably unavailable to work in Florida as required.
10. An obscure legislative panel approved a plan to privatize medical care at Florida’s prisons. The plans were challenged by three unions representing some 2,600 state employees who stand to lose their jobs, and a judge in Tallahassee blocked plans in three of Florida’s four prison system regions. State officials say they will appeal.