It has yet to be determined whether or not the Trayvon Martin case will result in an arrest and a trial. But surrounding issues are making the case even more complex as time goes by.
Potentially complicating matters now is a Miami Herald report that Sanford, Fla. police initially wanted to arrest and charge neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman for the shooting death of Martin, but the local prosecutor held off to see if charges were appropriate. Seminole-Brevard County State Attorney Norm Wolfinger originally had the case, but due to its sensitive and high-profile nature, Duval-Clay-Nassau County State Attorney Angela Corey was assigned as special prosecutor by Gov. Rick Scott.
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Corey would not confirm to the Herald whether a manslaughter charge was recommended by police, but she did say they went to the state attorney with a capias request, meaning they were seeking for charges to be filed. An unnamed source told the newspaper that an arrest could have potentially been made, but “obviously something gave investigators pause.”
ABC News reported the lead homicide investigator, Chris Serino, recommended that Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter, but the state attorney’s office felt there was not enough evidence to bring a case. He filed an affidavit on Feb. 26, the night Trayvon was killed, saying he did not believe Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.
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The Sanford P.D. report did actually categorize the incident as “Homicide-Negligent Manslaughter-Unneccessary Killing to Prevent Unlawful Act.” No prosecutor ever came to the scene of the crime, and the first detective to question Zimmerman after the shooting was a narcotics officer rather than a homicide detective.
It is not uncommon for prosecutors to wait a few days before they make an arrest, because they would want to have enough evidence to charge a suspect with a crime. It was initially reported that Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman due to lack of probable cause under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute. But the Herald report suggests that the department could not move forward after sending the case to Wolfinger’s office and waiting for him to make a determination. Since then, a grand jury was requested to meet April 10, and Corey has been put on the case. Police Chief Bill Lee has temporarily stepped down.
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“The state attorney impaneled a grand jury, but before anything else could be done, the governor stepped in and asked us to pick it up in mid-stream,” Corey explained.
But Washington-based criminal defense attorney Christopher Leibig tells TIME that even though it is true that prosecutors can give a case a little time to gather evidence, “the elements that they need to make an arrest have always been there.”
Leibig says it would be normal procedure to conduct some investigation of whatever evidence the authorities do have just after the incident occurred. “The interesting thing is what they didn’t do, because weeks have gone by,” he says. “You don’t need a grand jury to conduct an investigation. You would expect some things to be done quickly.” But he says he suspects there was some disagreement among police on which way to move with a charge.
In a homicide case a prosecutor would have the authority to overrule police, if necessary, says Stuart Slotnick, who works as a defense attorney in New York. “It doesn’t mean an arrest won’t take place,” he adds. “Later the prosecutor can get involved and develop evidence. They don’t want to prematurely arrest and lose the case.”
He said prosecutors must meet the initial burden of establishing that there was reasonable cause to believe a crime was committed, and also at trial, “do you have evidence that could prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Slotnick warned that the case is a puzzle with many missing pieces, and Corey would want to assemble as many pieces as she can to see if a charge can be brought. Gun residue on Zimmerman’s clothes, for example, would be consistent with close range shot in self-defense. But no gun residue would signify a greater distance and would undermine a self-defense claim.
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These pieces of evidence have not been released by prosecutors or the Sanford Police Department, nor have witness accounts or any statements even though Zimmerman’s statement was leaked from within the department. Corey, speaking to CNN’s John King USA, said the information was not for public use.
“That police report should not have been put in the public domain,” she said. “We have strict rules in Florida with regard to when a document becomes a public record and that does not comport with Florida law.”