Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder, in custody in Sanford

The Miami HeraldApril 11, 2012 

Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey has charged neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Zimmerman turned himself in, and at about 8:30 p.m., TV cameras broadcast him walking — head covered, wearing a plaid shirt — into Central Florida’s Seminole County Intake Center. His booking mugshot offered the first up-to-date photograph of Zimmerman — replacing grainy video surveillance footage and outdated photos that have already become part of the national consciousness.

Earlier, at a Wednesday evening news conference, Corey told reporters “it is the search for justice for Trayvon Martin that has brought us to this moment.”

Corey added that the decision to charge Zimmerman was not taken lightly, and was based on the facts of the case.

“We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition,” Corey said.

The prosecutor’s decision capped weeks of protests nationwide, which were marked by student walk-outs in South Florida and throngs of marchers wearing hoodies in cities from New York to Seattle. The case of a hooded high school junior from MIami-Dade who went for a walk in the rain to get snacks became a national symbol of racial injustice. And for others, it became a glaring example of the media’s rush to judgment and willingness to try a case in the newsroom instead of a courtroom.

Though Corey said the mounting public pressure did not influence her decision, the Rev. Al Sharpton — appearing with Trayvon’s parents after the charges were announced — credited the protests and other public shows of support with convincing Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to take a second look at the case. Sharpton recalled how Sanford police once announced, matter-of-factly, that there would be no arrests in the case.

“Had there not been pressure, there would not have been a second look,” Sharpton said. “That look has led to where we are tonight.”

Trayvon’s parents thanked supporters, of all races, who signed petitions demanding law enforcement take action in the case — more than 2.2 million people signed a viral campaign launched on the website Change.org.

“A heart has no color, it’s not black, it’s not white, it’s red,” Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said. “And I want to say thank you, from my heart to your heart.”

Trayvon Martin died Feb. 26 in the Orlando suburb of Sanford after he returned from 7-Eleven, where he bought Skittles and iced tea. While walking back from the store to the townhouse he was visiting at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community’s watch captain spotted him and found him suspicious. There had been recent burglaries, Trayvon was walking slow, “looking about,” and appeared to be on drugs, Zimmerman told a police operator.

Zimmerman, a married man who worked in the mortgage and insurance industries while studying criminal justice, had called police to report a variety of crimes 46 times in eight years. In the past year, he had reported black men looking “suspicious” on four prior occasions.

The watch captain’s four-minute call that night would be played hundreds of times on national media and scrutinized to its finest detail on social networking sites. In it, Zimmerman was heard huffing and puffing as he got out of his truck to tail Trayvon and figure out where he went, because the teen took off running.

The operator told him not to follow him, and Zimmerman muttered profanities lamenting how the bad guys “always get away.”

Zimmerman later told police that after the operator told him not to follow Trayvon, he headed back to his truck, and that’s when the teenager came up from behind him. The two exchanged words and Trayvon allegedly punched Zimmerman in the face, breaking his nose, Zimmerman’s attorneys and family have said.

A scuffle ensued, and Zimmerman reached for his licensed Kel Tek 9 mm semiautomatic handgun from the holster on his waist and fired once, hitting Travyon in the chest.

Corey declined to discuss in detail how prosecutors’ investigation was carried out, but her statements shed some light on how she reached a murder charge.

Investigators made several trips to the scene of the shooting, retrieving evidence from Sanford police and re-interviewing witnesses in the neighborhood.

“A lot of the witnesses had already made statements in public even before we took over the case,” Corey said. “A thorough review of all of the statements was done.”

Last month, Corey told the Herald that her investigators would be looking at a wide range of evidence, including the gun used by Zimmerman and the clothes he was wearing the night of the shooting. She said the 911 tapes—in which someone is heard screaming for help before the fatal gunshot—would be “critical” and would be analyzed.

One thing is clear: Corey found enough evidence to believe the state’s Stand Your Ground law—which protects people who use deadly force in self-defense—did not apply in this case.

“If Stand Your Ground becomes an issue, we fight it,” she said.

Zimmerman this week retained a new attorney, Orlando attorney Mark O’Mara, who told CNN Wednesday evening that he is still getting settling into this new high-profile responsibility. So far, O’Mara said his understanding of the case is based solely on media accounts, though he said “I intend to get caught up to speed very quickly.”

The issue of self-defense will likely play a significant role in the case, O’Mara said, and the extensive media coverage of recent weeks could make it more challenging to find an impartial jury — potentially requiring a criminal trial to be held outside of Sanford, O’Mara added.

Zimmerman will plead not guilty, as is typical for the early stages of a case like this. A judge could rule as early as tomorrow on whether Zimmerman is eligible to be released on bond.

O’Mara played a role in the well-known Casey Anthony murder case, though he was on the outside looking in. The attorney provided legal analysis to Orlando TV station WKMG-Channel 6 during the Anthony trial.

The Sanford Police Department immediately came under fire for its handling of the investigation, as witnesses said detectives performed cursory interviews to support the set of facts they were accepting as true: that Zimmerman had committed a justifiable homicide.

The accounts from witnesses were mixed, although they largely agreed that they all assumed that a person they heard screaming for help was now dead. Zimmerman claimed those cries were his unanswered calls for help, and Sanford police believed him.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee said he did not make an arrest because there was no probable cause to refute Zimmerman’s story – and Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law made him immune from arrest.

The law eliminates a citizen’s duty to retreat when faced with the reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. The law says someone who starts a fight should exhaust all other means before resorting to deadly force.

The controversy that exploded after the shooting has put the future of the hotly debated law in doubt.

Lee’s future is murky as well: After the Sanford city commission took a “no confidence” vote against the embattled chief, Lee took a paid leave of absence.

It was later revealed that the police senior investigator in the case had requested criminal charges be filed early on in the investigation, but the Brevard-Seminole County State Attorney held off pending further review.

The case was transferred to special prosecutor Corey, based in Jacksonville, and is now being investigated by the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Justice Civil Rights division. Corey opted against using a grand jury to decide whether to file charges.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said that the FBI has been on the scene “helping build a case.”

But for the state criminal charges to be joined by federal hate crime charges, Holder said a high bar must be met.

"For a federal hate crime we have to prove the highest standard in the law — something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard," he said.

Zimmerman’s case was further complicated when the city of Sanford released surveillance video of him arriving at the police station. A professionally enhanced version shows a cut on his head, but the grainy video posted on the city’s website showed Zimmerman had no trouble walking and did not have any blood on his clothes.

In television interviews last week, his former attorney, Hal Uhrig, stressed that a person can be killed even without bloodshed. He noted “shaken baby syndrome,” and the death of actress Natasha Richardson, who died after a single blow to the head during a skiing accident.

Miami Herald Staff Writers Marc Caputo and Toluse Olorunnipa contributed to this report.

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