USA TODAY, April 11, 2012
By Yamiche Alcindor, Marisol Bello and William M. Welch
SANFORD, Fla. – The killing of Trayvon Martin has for weeks fed a national debate about police profiling, self-defense laws, racism and even gun control.
Wednesday, the death of the unarmed black teenager in a “hoodie” became something else: A murder case.
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey said in Jacksonville that George Zimmerman, 28, had been taken into custody and was awaiting arraignment within 24 hours on a charge of second-degree murder in the death of the 17-year-old. He could face life in prison if convicted.
The murder charge is likely to face intense scrutiny in the weeks ahead as it is weighed against Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which police cited the night of the shooting as the reason Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was never charged in the first place. The law gives Florida citizens the right to use deadly force if they feel threatened; Zimmerman contends that he was attacked by Trayvon and brutally beaten.
“I can tell you we did not come to this decision lightly,” Corey said, lamenting the intense media attention brought to the case, which has been broadcast on TV nationwide. “We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.”
Indeed, the Feb. 26 killing was elevated by social media and carried to Wednesday’s news conference by rallies across the country filled with protesters donning hoodies. The U.S. Justice Department became involved and even President Obama weighed in, offering: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
On the night of the shooting, Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, had called police minutes earlier and reported the youth as suspicious.
Zimmerman’s newly hired lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said at a news conference that his client is in custody and dismayed by events, but he will plead not guilty to the charges. O’Mara said he told Zimmerman to “stay calm and listen to my advice.” He is expected to make his first court appearance Thursday.
“Let the process work, let’s not prejudge anyone any longer,” he said. “There are high emotions.”
O’Mara said Zimmerman will likely remain in protective custody, but that he will seek his release on bail. “He is a client who has a lot of hatred focused on him,” he said.
While out of sight, Zimmerman apparently established a website to raise money for his legal bills. On therealgeorgezimmerman.com, he says: “As a result of the incident and subsequent media coverage, I have been forced to leave my home, my school, my employer, my family and ultimately, my entire life.”
Trayvon’s parents — who have been making public pleas for justice — voiced relief and welcomed the charge.
“We wanted nothing more, nothing less. We just wanted an arrest,” said Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother. “I say thank you. … Thank you, Jesus.”
His father, Tracy Martin, said, “It feels good to know that (Zimmerman) is off the street, that he is in custody.”
Trayvon’s parents were greeted with a standing ovation in a Washington, D.C., convention center ballroom where they were attending the annual meeting of the National Action Network, a civil rights group that has been calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.
“We don’t want to see any high-fiving tonight,” said Al Sharpton, the network’s president and founder. “There is no victory here. We are still mourning with this family.”
‘A thorough investigation’
Trayvon was shot and killed here while walking after dark to the home of a family friend. Zimmerman told police he shot the teen in self-defense after calling authorities to report he was tracking a suspicious individual inside his gated community. On 911 tapes, a dispatcher can be heard telling Zimmerman that he didn’t need to follow the young man.
Trayvon was found unarmed with a fatal chest wound. He had been carrying a can of iced tea and a package of candy.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said the prosecutor’s decision to charge Zimmerman was the result of “a swift and thorough investigation” and a “commitment to bringing justice to Trayvon’s family and allowing due process for Zimmerman.”
NAACP President Ben Jealous called the charge “an important first step toward bringing justice for Trayvon and his family” and said racial profiling of young black men was at the heart of the case.
“We anticipate and expect a thorough federal investigation of the Sanford Police Department and their role in exacerbating this tragedy,” he said.
The U.S. Justice Department is also conducting an investigation.
The case also put a spotlight on Florida’s new “stand your ground” law that enhanced legal protections for individuals who shoot another when they believe they are in danger. Corey said the law provides an “affirmative defense” that, if raised by Zimmerman, will be considered by a Florida criminal court.
“If it becomes an issue in this case, we will fight that affirmative defense,” she said.
Corey had considered a range of charges from murder to manslaughter to lesser counts.
The self-defense defense
Now the charges are likely to provide new debates over the appropriateness of the charges and whether Florida’s self-defense law provides a shield for a shooter such as Zimmerman, who contends he felt his life was in jeopardy during the confrontation.
With the intense scrutiny the case has received, and the deep ideological gulfs it has exposed over racial tension and permissive gun laws, there are also sure to be endless debates over whether Corey and prosecutors can now get a jury conviction.
Even with charges filed, there is no guarantee Zimmerman may face trial as the case could yet be thrown out under the state’s stand your ground law, said University of Florida law professor George Dekle, who prosecuted executed serial killer Ted Bundy.
Dekle said Zimmerman’s attorney can file a motion to dismiss the case. If a judge finds there is insufficient evidence to show that Zimmerman acted in any way other than self-defense, he can toss the case out of court.
But Michelle Jacobs, a defense attorney and law professor at the University of Florida who teaches about the role of race in prosecutions, said self-defense is difficult to establish in this case because it’s unclear who was defending himself against whom.
“If Trayvon Martin perceived an unknown individual to be a threat to his safety, then he was entitled under the self-defense law to protect himself,” she said.
Jacobs said the case is further hampered because police did not fully investigate after the shooting. For example, Sanford police conducted toxicology tests for drugs and alcohol on Trayvon, but not Zimmerman.
Little by way of physical evidence has been released publicly, and Corey made it clear Wednesday that she wouldn’t show the prosecution’s hand ahead of trial.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, a forensics expert at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says the physical evidence — the autopsy and ballistics reports, for example — will likely play an important role for the prosecution because the eyewitness accounts are unreliable. Witnesses who called 911 or have spoken to the news media have said it was dark. Some say they heard the scuffle between the men but didn’t see it.
David LaBahn, president and CEO of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a former prosecutor, said self-defense cases are most often the most difficult to prosecute.
“There are a lot of other sides to them,” LaBahn said. In this case, “the accused and the victim have tremendous support communities. So no matter what her decision is folks will be unhappy with it.”
Some say that prosecutors overreacted by charging Zimmerman and say that the case could have a chilling effect on self-defense cases in the future.
“The parents, the media, the parades all put pressure (on authorities) to press charges,” said Sandy Pizzino, 59, of Lehigh Acres, Fla. “They have absolutely railroaded (Zimmerman). If they hadn’t charged him with something, there would be riots in Sanford and across the country. I think it’s a shame. I think (Zimmerman) acted in self-defense.”
Reaction in Sanford
Several people quietly crowded around a small television at Allen Chapel AME Church, located in Sanford’s historically black Goldsboro neighborhood. Many with their heads bowed, smiled shortly after Corey announced the charge of second-degree murder. Some began clapping and smiling, while others had tears in their eyes.
When the news conference ended, the room of people gathered in a circle to pray for not only the family of Trayvon but also for Zimmerman’s.
“We’re not here to celebrate,” said Velma Williams, a Sanford City Commissioner, to the small crowd. “We’re here to give thanks to the Almighty for making this possible.”
Williams said the announcement is the first in a series of things that need to change. “There is a cancer in the police department that must be eradicated before we can move on,” she said.
Reginald White, 23, who led the prayer after the announcement, said it was important to remember that Zimmerman has a family, too. “Trayvon Martin’s family lost a son and Zimmerman’s family has lost a son,” he said.
“The world has lost two men.”
Bello reported from McLean, Va. Welch from Los Angeles. Contributing: Kevin Johnson and Donna Leinwand Leger in Washington; Rick Neale of Florida Today; and Associated Press.