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. 

Daron Dean/REUTERS
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.

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.

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 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. “

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.

“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.”

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