Updated: April 11, 2012, 10:17 PM
A special prosecutor in Florida on Wednesday charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder for the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in a case that has stoked racial tensions and drawn calls for justice from seemingly every corner of the nation.
At a news conference in Florida, prosecutor Angela Corey said Zimmerman was in custody, though she declined to say where. She said the decisions to charge Zimmerman and which specific charge to bring were not easy.
“It is the search for justice for Trayvon that brought us here to this moment,” Corey said. “I can tell you that we did not come to this decision lightly.”After the announcement was made, Martin’s parents gave an emotional news conference, saying they were thankful for the arrest. Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, and mother, Sabrina Fulton, said they were grateful to see justice starting to move forward.
“We wanted nothing more, nothing less,” Fulton said. “We just wanted an arrest and we got it. And I say thank you, Lord. Thank you, Jesus.”
Late Wednesday, Zimmerman was booked into jail in Seminole County, Fla., where his mugshot was taken (see photo at right) and he was held without bail. He was scheduled for his first court appearance on Thursday at 1:30 p.m., according to the jail’s website.
The case revolves around the Feb. 26 killing, which set off a national firestorm when police declined to arrest Zimmerman after he claimed he was acting in self defense.
A neighborhood watch volunteer in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., Zimmerman was reportedly patrolling the area that night when he spotted Martin, 17, walking home from a convenience store.
Some sort of confrontation took place after that and Zimmerman, 28, ended up shooting and killing the teen. Zimmerman’s family and attorneys have since said Martin attacked him, but there was evidence that may not have been the case.
Second-degree murder is the toughest charge that Corey could have filed in the case, according to University of Florida law professor Michael Seigel.
Florida’s laws would have required Corey to take the case to a grand jury if she wanted to charge Zimmerman with the tougher charge of first-degree murder. To prove that charge, however, she would have had to show that Zimmerman planned in advance to kill Martin.
“This would be a nearly impossible first-degree murder case because that would have to have premeditation,” Seigel said.
Corey announced earlier this week that she was not taking the case to a grand jury.
Second-degree murder is a higher level of crime than manslaughter, the charge that many speculated Zimmerman would face.
The murder charge, Seigel said, means that the prosecutor believes the killing was carried out without the heat of passion but still may not have been planned in advance.
If Zimmerman is found guilty, he could face life in prison, Seigel said.
The next big battle will likely be over whether Zimmerman should be freed on bail while the case moves forward. A judge would have to decide whether Zimmerman is a possible risk to skip out on the case and the decision could come down to whether his family or someone else would be willing to put up enough money to guarantee his attendance.
That decision will likely be fraught with peril, given the level of outrage in the community brought on by the fact that police refused to arrest Zimmerman after the shooting.
The next major battle, according to Tampa, Fla., criminal defense attorney James Felman, who has no involvement in the case, will come down to whether Zimmerman decides to use the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law as the basis for his defense.
Under the law, a shooting can be justified if the gunman believed his life was in danger. Sanford police investigators cited the law as their reason for not arresting Zimmerman in the first place.
If Zimmerman decides to use that defense, Felman said, the judge in the case will call a hearing where he listens to evidence.
“The judge will sit as a finder of fact and make a factual determination about whether he believes Zimmerman’s version or the state’s version,” Felman said.
If the judge determines that Zimmerman was reasonably in fear for his life, the charge will be thrown out. But even if the judge rules against Zimmerman, Felman said Zimmerman can still use that defense at trial.
“He gets a second bite at it in front of the jury,” Felman said.
Though he has used the Stand Your Ground law as a defense for some of his own clients, Felman said the measure should be repealed. “It’s quite a statute.”