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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. 

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The shooting of an unarmed black boy in a place where he had a right to be played into the fears of black parents and clawed at deep-seated suspicions that black people in the US still struggle for equal justice under the law.

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“As a parent, I reacted to it,” said Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black. “This is a pain that no parent should have to endure. I think there was also a reaction based on issues we have faced in this nation over time, this has brought to the surface many of those issues.”

Yet other Americans say it's the shooter, Zimmerman, who has become a victim of racial politics and a public-relations campaign carefully orchestrated to “poison the jury pool,” in the words of Dave Kopel, research analyst at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.

The Daily Caller website has reported that a member of Zimmerman's family this week sent a letter to Attorney General Holder, asking why police had not arrested members of the New Black Panther Party who had put a bounty on Zimmerman's head, not so subtly suggesting racial hypocrisy on the part of top law enforcement officials.

In the weeks since Trayvon's death, various 911 calls, security videos and witness reports have pieced together a narrative of a misbegotten and ultimately tragic encounter between two strangers inside the Retreat at Twin Lakes subdivision. What remain murky are a crucial two minutes spanning the time when Zimmerman hung up the phone with a 911 dispatcher and when neighbors called police to report screams and a gunshot.

Martin's family, citing a voice heard screaming on one of the 911 tapes and a conversation Trayvon was having with a girlfriend as he walked down the street, say Zimmerman disobeyed a dispatcher's suggestion not to pursue Trayvon, putting the teenager in a position where he felt threatened and ultimately in fear for his life. Zimmerman told police that he had returned to his car when he was attacked by Trayvon.

Indeed, one potential legal question likely weighed by prosecutors reviewing the case is whether it was actually Trayvon who legally stood his ground in order to confront an armed stranger approaching him in a threatening manner, says Joelle Anne Moreno, a law professor at Florida International University.

Florida passed the first Stand Your Ground law in 2005, enshrining the legal idea that peaceable citizens have no duty to retreat from danger, even in a public place, and are allowed to protect themselves with deadly force if they have a reasonable fear for their life or grievous bodily injury. Proponents of the laws say it's a simple formalization of common law, while critics say the law – some version of which has been adopted by 30 states – changed the basic social compact and diminished the value of human life.

After Zimmerman is arraigned, the next major legal step is for a judge to make a determination about whether the state's Stand Your Ground law applies in this case. At that point, a judge could give Zimmerman immunity from prosecution, barring a jury from hearing the case.

“Right now, we're on first base in this game of justice,” Ben Crump, the family's attorney, said. “We've got to deal with this Stand Your Ground issue, we've got to get to third base, which is the trial ... and then we can bring it around home to justice.”

RECOMMENDED: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case

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