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George Zimmerman charged in Trayvon Martin case: Why now, and what next?

George Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law could loom large moving forward. 

By Staff writer / April 11, 2012

Prosecutor Angela Corey answers questions about the Trayvon Martin case during a news conference at the state attorney's office in Jacksonville, Fla., Wednesday. Corey announced she was charging George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in February.

Daron Dean/REUTERS

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Atlanta

Forty-five days after police in Sanford, Fla., released neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman without charges after he shot an unarmed black teenager, a special Florida prosecutor has charged him with second-degree murder.

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News that Mr. Zimmerman was in custody in Florida capped an emotional and tense three weeks that raised questions about racial injustice and sparked a fiery national debate about Florida's landmark Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which prosecutors acknowledge they may still have to contend with in the case.

Amid massive public pressure and attention from the White House and the Justice Department, special state prosecutor Angela Corey announced Wednesday that the state was charging Zimmerman, a 28-year-old former altar boy going to school to become a police officer, for his role in Trayvon Martin's death.

Saying her decision had nothing to do with public pressure, Ms. Corey said she believes prosecutors have evidence to prove that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense under the state's Stand Your Ground law. A charge of second-degree murder involves the claim that death was caused by dangerous conduct and an obvious lack of concern for human life. Florida law requires a minimum punishment of 25 years and a maximum of life in prison without parole if convicted.

“We have to have reasonable certainty of conviction any time we file charges,” said Corey. “If Stand Your Ground is an issue, we'll fight it.”

Sanford police released Zimmerman on the night of the shooting, believing they didn't have probable cause given his self-defense claim and physical evidence – including blood on nose and back of his head – that he had defended himself. 

But Corey said the case “changed course” amid a public outcry over the Sanford Police Department's assertion that there would be no arrest, and as Gov. Rick Scott appointed her three weeks ago to lead the investigation.

“The Supreme Court has defined our role as not only ministers of justice, but seekers of truth, and we stay true to that mission,” said Corey, who said she had prayed with the Martin family at their first meeting three weeks ago, though she had not promised them that any charges would be filed.

Given the tension over the case in Sanford, officials in Seminole County – where the special prosecutor is based –remained on high alert ahead of Wednesday's announcement. On Monday, an empty police cruiser was riddled with bullets near where Trayvon was shot. Corey said Zimmerman was being held in an undisclosed location for his safety and the safety of others.

“I trust in the goodness of all Florida citizens to allow justice system to reach appropriately conclusion in this case,” Governor Scott said.

According to Martin's family, the arrest is the first step toward closure. They have urged police to arrest Zimmerman, alleging that the outcome would have been different had a black man shot a white man. Thousands of people have marched, many of them wearing a similar hoodie to what Trayvon was wearing the night he died. More than a million people signed a petition for police to arrest Zimmerman on the Change.org website.

“We simply wanted arrest, nothing more, nothing less, and we got it, and I say thank you, thank you Lord, thank you, Jesus,” Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, said. “Secondly, I just want to speak from my heart to your heart, because a heart has no color. It's not black, it's not white, it's red. Thank you from my heart to your heart. “

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