Florida state special prosecutor Angela Corey charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin Wednesday afternoon, 44 days after the teen was shot to death while walking in a Sanford, Fla., gated community, sparking nationwide demonstrations and heated controversy.
“Mr. Zimmerman turned himself in and was arrested on the capias that has already been issued,” Corey said at a news conference Wednesday evening. She would not say where he was being held or when exactly he turned himself in.
Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood-watch volunteer who has been described as a white Hispanic, told police that he shot the black 17-year-old high schooler in self-defense after he suspected that he might be up to criminal activity. He said that Trayvon broke his nose and began to pummel him on the ground, forcing him to fire his concealed weapon. But 911 tapes and a reported conversation with Martin’s girlfriend have been major cause for debate over what really happened between the time Zimmerman spotted him and the time he fired the fatal shot.
The case remained in relative obscurity until online petitions, particularly one on Change.org, garnered millions of signatures and caught the attention of the media and civil rights leaders, who charge that Trayvon was the victim of racial profiling.
Zimmerman had remained uncharged and in hiding since the controversy boiled into a fever pitch. He stayed in hiding while two attorneys, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, who had never met him in person, and a personal friend, Joe Oliver, spoke publicly on his behalf, along with his father and brother. However, Sonner and Uhrig announced Tuesday that they were withdrawing as his attorneys, citing poor communication, creating a fundraising website without their advice, speaking to the media, and worst of all attempting to speak with Corey, unaided by their counsel.
Martin’s parents, Sabrina Fulton, whom Trayvon lived with in Miami, and Tracy Martin, who Trayvon was visiting at the time of his death, have remained steadfast that they wanted Zimmerman arrested. Along with their attorney Benjamin Crump, they kept the case in the public eye.
Speaking at Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network Convention in Washington D.C., Trayvon’s parents expressed their gratitude and hopefulness for justice.
“We simply wanted an arrest,” said Fulton, in tears. “We wanted nothing more, nothing less, and we got it, and I say thank you Lord, thank you Jesus.” Martin followed her, thankful for everyone’s compassion. “We got a long way to go and we have faith,” he said. “First time we marched I looked to the sky and told myself I would walk by faith.”
After the shooting, police declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing that based on Florida self-defense statutes, they did not have enough probable cause to arrest him. It was later reported that police investigators did not believe Zimmerman’s story and wanted to arrest him on the night of the shooting.
State attorney Norm Wolfinger, however, reportedly declined to make an arrest and subsequently sent the case to a grand jury, which was supposed to convene Tuesday. Sanford, Fla., police chief Bill Lee announced that he would temporarily step down from his position as prosecutors analyzed the shooting.
Because of the high-profile nature of the case, Florida Gov. Rick Scott reassigned the case to Corey, who eventually declined to use the grand jury, opting instead to investigate the killing herself.
Although Zimmerman has now been formally charged, prosecutors and his new defense attorney must select a jury and pursue the case. Corey’s office will have the burden of proving that Zimmerman did not have reasonable cause to believe that his life was in danger as he has claimed. A police surveillance videotape released by ABC News did not show any apparent life-threatening injury to Zimmerman, but when cleared up, a bruise or cut can faintly be made out on the back of his head.
Zimmerman may also still face federal civil rights charges because the Department of Justice has already launched an investigation into whether Trayvon’s civil rights were violated when Zimmerman pursued him. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said at the National Action Network meeting: “If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action.”
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s new attorney, said that he hopes a judge will set a bond and release his client so they can get started on the work of his defense. “My hope is that the judge will grant a bond and that it is a bond the family can make. They are not a family of means.” It was unclear exactly when a bond hearing would take place.
Crump cautioned, however, that even though Corey’s announcement was progress, there is still a long road ahead. “We always believed from day one that if you look at the evidence fairly and impartially, you would come to the conclusion that he would have to be arrested,” he said. “We have to take a short breath, because we are only getting to first base.”
Based on Florida law, Zimmerman could be facing a maximum of 30 years in prison if he’s convicted of the charge or if a jury returns a compromised verdict, a maximum of 15 years. University of Florida law professor Michelle Jacobs said it will be an uphill battle for both Corey and O’Mara as they try the case.
“Both of their jobs are tough,” she explained. “It was tough for [Corey] to have to disregard all the kerfluffle in the media and focus in on the evidence to see if she could make out a triable charge. [O'Mara's] got to make sure he can marshal the evidence and establish to the court that it should go to a jury.”
Jacobs believes, however, that it is possible for Zimmerman to get a fair trial in Florida.
“It’s not whether he’ll get a fair trial, but whether jurors will see Trayvon Martin as a victim as the prosecutor has.”