Bill Lee said he stands by his department's initial investigation but that he is stepping aside to avoid being a distraction. The case has been drawing widespread national coverage amid claims that Trayvon, who is black, was a victim of racial stereotyping.
"It is apparent that my role in this matter is overshadowing the process," Lee said at a news conference, adding that he felt he should remove himself from his post "in the hopes of restoring some semblance of calm to the city, which has been in turmoil for several weeks."
The local prosecutor, Norman Wolfinger, also stepped down from the case Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said. Wolfinger said in a letter to Scott that his recusal was aimed at "toning down the rhetoric and preserving the integrity of the investigation." Scott appointed Angela Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, to take the case.
City Manager Norton Bonaparte refused to say what Lee meant by "temporarily" removing himself as police chief. Bonaparte said a search would begin immediately for an interim chief.
A few hours before the announcement, Bonaparte told USA TODAY that he would await the results of investigations into the Sanford Police Department by the Department of Justice and the Florida state attorney's office before deciding Lee's fate.
"I want to know if there were things they should have done that they didn't do, or things they did that they shouldn't have done," Bonaparte said.
He and Lee both left the news conference without answering questions.
Wednesday, many called for firing Lee and the Sanford City Commission, in a 3-2 vote, voted "no confidence" in Lee.
NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said outside Sanford City Hall that Lee "needs to step down, not just step aside."
"I don't see how this gets to a place where he isn't fired or just decides to quit," Jealous said. "By letting this linger for weeks, he has embarrassed our entire country."
There have been "assumptions and conclusions" made by the public regarding the Martin case that are based on limited information, Lee said in an email to USA TODAY this week. "There is much information that at this time is not public record to ensure the integrity of the investigation," he said.