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“ JACKSONVILLE — After 45 days, one lawsuit, dozens of rallies, cries from thousands of protesters, more than two million petition signatures and countless media reports, the neighborhood watchman who shot Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin was criminally charged Wednesday, capping a public outcry unmatched in recent memory.
George Zimmerman, 28, 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.
Calling Trayvon’s parents “sweet,” she referred to Trayvon for the first time in a way other law enforcement officers so far had not: as a “victim.” When she first met with the boy’s parents, she said, she began her meeting in prayer.
The charge came a month after the police department in Sanford declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying his claim of self defense was backed up by physical evidence and witness statements. That decision by Sanford Police spawned a national movement that made a martyr of a suspended high school junior whose name is now trademarked and known around the world.
The prosecutor’s decision followed weeks of nationwide protests, which were marked by student walk-outs in South Florida and throngs of marchers wearing hoodies — as Trayvon was wearing the night he died — in cities from New York to Seattle. While for some the case symbolized racial injustice — Trayvon was black; Zimmerman is a white Hispanic — 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.
A case that galvanized nation also divided it. Gun advocates, white separatist groups and other conservative commentators supported Zimmerman’s right to defend himself and criticized African-American activists, accusing them of sowing racial strife by claiming Trayvon was a victim of racial profiling.
“We only know one category as prosecutors, and that’s a ‘V.’ It’s not a ‘B,’ it’s not a ‘W,’ it’s not an ‘H.’ It’s ‘V,’ for victim,” she said. “That’s who we work tirelessly for. And that’s all we know, is justice for our victims.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 huffing and puffing as he got out of his truck to tail Trayvon and figure out where he went, because the teen had taken off running.
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.
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.
“This matter is now in the hands of the judicial system and I am confident justice will prevail,” Gov. Scott said in a statement Wednesday. “As the process continues, it is critical that we be patient and allow the proceedings to move forward in a fair and transparent manner. I thank State Attorney Angela Corey for her diligence in conducting a thorough investigation. We will all continue to look for answers to the Trayvon Martin tragedy.”
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/04/11/v-fullstory/2743569/george-zimmerman-charged-with.html#storylink=cp”
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