Crime

George Zimmerman arraignment set for May 29; Trayvon Martin’s mother says encounter ‘an accident’

SANFORD -- The neighborhood watchman who shot and killed Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin will remain in jail while awaiting a bond hearing and formal arraignment on a charge of second-degree murder, a Seminole County judge ruled Thursday afternoon.

George Zimmerman, 28, appeared at the brief, first-appearance hearing handcuffed and dressed in a gray prison jumpsuit. He said little except to answer “Yes, sir,’’ twice to acknowledge he understood the charge against him and his representation by an attorney.

Zimmerman did not enter a plea and no bail was set, but a formal arraignment was set for 1:30 p.m. May 29 before Seminole County Circuit Judge Jessica J. Recksiedler. Zimmerman will enter a plea then.

At Thursday’s initial hearing, Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, asked the judge for a “complete sealing” of future records in the case, including witness statements and identifying information.

O’Mara later acknowledged that he did not request a bond hearing Thursday because that would require a presentation of additional evidence by prosecutors — something O’Mara said he wants to avoid in order to prevent the case from being tried in the media.

“It’s really supposed to happen in the courtroom,’’ O’Mara said about the release of evidence.

O’Mara added that he will seek bond for his client at a future hearing before arraignment.

Seminole County Judge Mark E. Herr, who presided over Thursday’s hearing via teleconference, concurred with O’Mara’s request to seal future records.

But Herr said he would make public a two-page affidavit that supports the state’s second-degree murder charge.

Prosecutors said in the affidavit that Zimmerman “confronted Martin and a struggle ensued’’, an apparent contradiction of Zimmerman's account that Martin attacked him from behind.

The affidavit also states that Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, reviewed 911 calls made by neighbors and witnesses that night, and that she identified the screams for help heard in the calls as those of her son.

The document also reveals that investigators interviewed a “friend’’ who was talking to Trayvon on his cell phone moments before the shooting. The friend likely is the girl described by Martin family attorneys as his girlfriend.

“During this time, Martin was on the phone with a friend and described to her what was happening,’’ the affidavit states. “The witness advised that Martin was scared because he was being followed through the complex by an unknown male and didn't know why.’’

Martin tried to run home, the affidavit states, but “Zimmerman got out of his vehicle and followed Martin,’’ disregarding a police dispatcher who advised against that course of action.

According to the affidavit, “Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest.’’

Speaking with media after Thursday’s hearing, O’Mara said is not taking any legal fees for representing Zimmerman, whom O’Mara described as “indigent.’’

“He doesn’t have any money,’’ O’Mara said.

Earlier Thursday, Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said on NBC’s Today show that she believed the encounter that led to the shooting death of her 17-year-old son was “an accident,’’ expressing her opinion in the case for the first time.

“I believe it was an accident,’’ Fulton said on Today. “I believe that it just got out of control, and he couldn’t turn the clock back.’’

Fulton later clarified her statement through the family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, who posted her explanation on his Twitter account.

“Earlier today, I made a comment to the media that was later mischaracterized,’’ read Fulton’s statement. “When I referenced the word ‘accident’ today with regard to Trayvon’s death, in NO way did I mean the shooting was an accident. We believe that George Zimmerman stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood. The ‘accident’ I was referring to was the fact that George Zimmerman and my son ever crossed paths. It was an accidental encounter. If George Zimmerman hadn’t gotten out of his vehicle, this entire incident would have been avoided. My son was profiled, followed and murdered by George Zimmerman, and there was nothing accidental about that.’’

O’Mara said he would not attempt to use Fulton’s statement in defense of his client.

Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder Wednesday after 45 days of protests, petitions and intense national media coverage of the case.

After weeks of hiding, Zimmerman turned himself in to police late Wednesday. Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials later transported Zimmerman from Jacksonville to Sanford, where he is now a protective custody inmate at the John E. Polk Correctional Facility.

O’Mara said his client will plead not guilty to the charge. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

O’Mara told CNN Thursday morning that Zimmerman is fatigued from more than a month of seclusion.

“He’s stressed,’’ O’Mara said. “He’s tired. He’s been through a lot with the way this case has been handled to date.’’

Trayvon’s family also has been through a lot, said Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, speaking on the Today show Thursday.

Asked what she would say to Zimmerman if given the opportunity, Fulton said she wanted an apology.

Then, she added: “I would ask him, did he know that that was a minor, that that was a teenager and that he did not have a weapon.’’

Fulton said she sympathizes with the Zimmerman family, but asked for their understanding as well.

“I understand that his family is hurting, but think about our family. We lost our teenage son,’’ she told Today show anchor Ann Curry. “I’m sure his parents can pick up the phone and call him, but we can’t pick up the phone and call Trayvon any more.’’

O’Mara, who took the case Wednesday night after Zimmerman’s previous attorneys resigned, expressed surprise at the second-degree murder charge, and said he thought “it might be manslaughter.’’

Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said state attorneys looked at all the evidence in the case and applied the law in their decision.

“We felt it was the appropriate charge,’’ he said after Thursday’s hearing. “We are the seekers of the truth and seekers of justice.’’

Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, a first-degree felony — a far more serious charge than the manslaughter arrest most experts were predicting. The decision to file the charge was made by special prosecutor Angela Corey, the Jacksonville-based state attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, who vowed to fight a self-defense claim and insisted that she did not bow to public pressure.

O’Mara said a pre-trial motion to dismiss the charges based on a claim of self-defense “could well occur, but it’s way too premature.’’

As Zimmerman’s case begins to wind its way through the courts, news of the charges against him was welcomed by students at Krop High School in North Miami-Dade, where Trayvon was a junior.

Many said they were relieved to learn that his killer had been charged — even if it did take 45 days.

“Finally,’’ said Dominique Clarke, 17, a classmate of Trayvon’s since middle school. “There is a small sense of relief, but nothing can bring him back.’’

The lack of an arrest had spurred hundreds of students at dozens of South Florida schools to stage a walk out in protest last month; Krop students wore black and wrote letters to his family.

Desrick Hudson, a student at Miami Norland Senior High, said he was happy the protests that he and other students held were not in vain.

“I think that justice is finally served and that our march and protest were not for nothing. I’m just happy now that Trayvon’s Martin spirit can finally rest in peace, and that Zimmerman would get what he deserves,’’ he said.

But critics say the prosecutor’s zeal to quell critics may have gone too far.

The murder charge is “political prostitution,” said Cheney Mason, the criminal defense attorney who successfully defended last year’s high profile trial of accused child-killer Casey Anthony. “Now I don’t have all the facts — no one does — but you look at what we know of the case, and it looks like the prosecutor bowed to other pressures.”

Former Miami U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey suggested Corey might not stick with the second-degree murder charge through trial. A jury could, under some circumstances, toss the second-degree murder charge and convict of a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, he said.

To prove Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder, Corey will have to show Zimmerman acted with a “depraved mind” when he shot Trayvon. “This is an aggressive charge,” Coffey said. “And there are times when an aggressive charge gives more incentive for the defendant to seek a plea. The vast majority of cases don’t go to trial and end in a plea.”

Zimmerman is still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division. In a speech at a conference in Washington, D.C., led by Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said a hate crime would be tough to prove.

Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, in Washington for that conference, said they were pleased with the charges.

Her voice shaking, Fulton told reporters all she ever wanted was an arrest.

“I say thank you. Thank you, Lord, thank you, Jesus,” she said. “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.”

Corey declined to discuss in detail how the investigation was carried out, but her statements shed some light on how the prosecution team reached the decision on a second-degree murder charge. She said the decision was made last week, and prosecutors used the arrest warrant an investigator had sought early in the case.

Her 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,” she 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 911 tapes — in which someone is heard screaming for help before the fatal gunshot — would be “critical” and would be analyzed.

The Sanford Police and Zimmerman’s former attorneys had said that when all the evidence was made public — including unedited 911 calls — the decision to release Zimmerman after the shooting would be better understood. But Corey apparently found enough evidence to believe the state’s Stand Your Ground law did not apply in this case.

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

The controversial law eliminated a citizen’s duty to retreat when faced with the reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. The controversy that exploded after the shooting has put the future of the hotly debated law in doubt.

“We have to change that law,” said Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon’s parents. “Think about Trayvon Martin, how this might never have happened had we not had those things in place. We never would have had to go 44 days to start simple justice.”

Trayvon died Feb. 26 after he was returning to the home where he was staying from 7-Eleven, where he bought Skittles candy and iced tea. While walking back from the store to the townhouse he was visiting at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, Zimmerman, 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 at Seminole State College, 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 breathing heavily as he got out of his truck to follow Trayvon, who had taken off running.

The police operator told Zimmerman he did not need 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 punched Zimmerman in the face, breaking his nose, Zimmerman’s former 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 Trayvon in the chest.

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 the person they heard screaming for help was the one who had been shot. Zimmerman claimed those cries were his unanswered calls for help, and Sanford police believed him.

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