Ex-Sanford police chief tells Local 6 why he didn't arrest George Zimmerman

Former police chief Bill Lee says he may have saved his job but would not violate his oath

SANFORD, Fla. – The police chief at the center of a firestorm over the decision not to arrest George Zimmerman tells Local 6 in an exclusive interview that he may have saved his job had he given into pressure, but he believes that would have violated his oath to uphold the Constitution.

[FULL VIDEO:  Tony Pipitone's exclusive interview with Bill Lee]

Former Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee Jr. said he got the call about shooting of Trayvon Martin on a rainy Sunday evening --Feb. 26, 2012 -- and headed to the scene at the Retreat at Twin Lakes.

"We had a 17-year-old, dead child -- somebody's child. And everyone wanted to find out the truth about what happened so that we could seek justice and make sure that justice was found for that 17-year-old child," Lee said.

Without specific evidence to refute Zimmerman's self-defense claims, Lee said, an arrest would have subjected the city to possible litigation for unlawful arrest

Lee was fired months later amid national outrage over his claim he did not have probable cause to arrest Zimmerman.  And he stands by that decision.

"Why didn't you arrest him?" Local 6 investigative reporter Tony Pipitone asked.

"Because I took an oath. The laws of the Constitution and the state of Florida say if you don't have probable cause to arrest someone you can't arrest them," Lee replied.

When asked why Lee couldn't arrest Zimmerman, he said there wasn't enough evidence to refute Zimmerman's self-defense claim.

"Well, when George Zimmerman makes the claim of self-defense we have to have some information that invalidates that or refutes that and, up to that point and continuing over the next several days, we did not have that," Lee said.

"If you did arrest him, would you still have your job?" Pipitone asked.

"That's a good question.  Probably," Lee said.

He revealed for the first time some of the internal deliberations and pressures with the police department and City Hall, including what became regular requests that he charge Zimmerman.

Those pressures, he said, contributed to the decision to hurriedly send the case to the state attorney before the police received cellphone records that would have led them to Rachel Jeantel, the young woman Trayvon Martin was speaking to just before he was shot.

Armed with Jeantel's statement, special prosecutor Angela Corey found enough probable cause to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder, a decision effectively upheld last week when Judge Debra Nelson rejected the defense motion for judgment of acquittal.

Lee complains that the involvement of civil rights lawyers and activists complicated his investigation, leading to a lack of full cooperation from Martin's family.

He also said he is absolutely certain Tracy Martin told his detective the screams on a 911 call that captured the shooting were not from his son, Trayvon. Tracy Martin testified in court earlier this week that he was misunderstood by authorities and distraught from hearing his son on the call.

Additionally, Lee criticized the special prosecutor's office for interviewing Jeantel in the presence of Martin's weeping mother, Sybrina Fulton.

Asked if Zimmerman would have been charged if he were black, Lee said race had nothing to do with his decision and that those allegations are not true.

"Just because they say that doesn't mean it's the truth," Lee said. "And the Sanford Police Department conducted this investigation with no race in mind."

Zimmerman faces second-degree murder charges in Martin's death.  He has pleaded not guilty.

Closing arguments are set to begin in his trial on Thursday.

Watch Local 6 News at 11 p.m. for more on this story.