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Florida town tries to unite after Trayvon Martin killing

George Zimmerman (2nd R) is pictured with his attorneys Mark O'Mara (L), Don West, and Lorna Truett (R) in Seminole circuit court in Sanford
George Zimmerman (2nd R) is pictured with his attorneys Mark O'Mara (L), Don West, and Lorna Truett (R) in Seminole circuit court in Sanford

By Barbara Liston

SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A year after the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in this central Florida town, there's a small memorial, a new police chief and an effort to improve race relations.

Trayvon Martin, 17, was gunned down on February 26, 2012 as he walked to his father's fiancee's home in one of Sanford's gated communities. The man accused of his killing, George Zimmerman, 28, a white Hispanic on neighborhood watch, is set to be tried on June 10.

Martin's death drew top-tier civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who brought a national spotlight to this town just north of Orlando and not far from Disney World.

That spotlight forced the town of 53,000 to confront police work that seemed to be a throwback to the days of separate and resolutely unequal racial sensibilities.

"This situation, with all eyes on Sanford is making them (city leaders) do something about it now," said Cindy Philemon, 49, who helps run the local black heritage museum and welcome center.

Over the weekend, volunteers in the black community hastily worked to complete a modest memorial of stuffed animals, cards and crosses in time to remember the first anniversary of Martin's shooting. It has also become a way for Sanford to remember the many other black victims of violence whose stories largely went untold.

City manager Norton Bonaparte, who is black, said Sanford had begun to tackle deep-seated problems between police and the black community that were exposed in public forums after Martin's death.

"In honoring Trayvon's life, we have to make ourselves a better community," Bonaparte said.

The police chief at the time of Martin's shooting lost his job over criticism that his department and prosecutors chose not to charge or arrest Zimmerman.

The new chief starts his job in April.

"Now, it's like the police are getting more involved in being with the community. They are starting to do their part in interacting with us," Philemon said. "They say there is not as many shootings as there once was."

Another resident, Thelma Holmes, 62, agreed saying, "It is better than what it was before, because we had a lot of killings of young men....The people and the police, they're both trying."

Trayvon's death will not be forgotten.

"It started people to come forward. So his death is not going to be in vain," said Philemon. "And he will always be remembered."

Martin's parents and lawyers will be in New York City, not Sanford, to hold a candlelight vigil on Tuesday night.

Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder, was granted bond and ordered to surrender his passport, agree to be electronically monitored, reside in Seminole County, and observe a night time curfew.

(Editing by David Adams and Leslie Gevirtz)

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