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After weeks of national protests, Zimmerman charged in Florida

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Florida prosecutor charged George Zimmerman with second-degree murder Wednesday in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin after weeks of protests demanding his arrest.

Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey said at a news conference in Jacksonville that Mr. Zimmerman, 28, was arrested Wednesday after turning himself in to authorities. She would not say where he was being held, adding that "that's for his safety and everyone else's safety."

Mr. Zimmerman was in jail Wednesday night and is scheduled to appear before a judge in Seminole County within the next 24 hours for a preliminary hearing. He has insisted that he acted in self-defense in the Feb. 26 shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old high-school student in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.

Florida prosecutors have been criticized for taking too long to file charges against Mr. Zimmerman, but Ms. Corey said Wednesday that "it didn't take too long."

"There is a reason cases are tried in a court and not in public and not by the media," Ms. Corey said.

The prosecutor said Monday that she would not bring the case before a grand jury, which meant that Mr. Zimmerman could not be charged with first-degree murder. Second-degree murder in Florida carries a minimum 25-year sentence, and life imprisonment is an option.

The case has ignited a national debate over racial profiling and calls for Mr. Zimmerman's arrest by liberal advocates and some of the nation's top black political figures, who say the shooter was motivated by race. Trayvon was black, and Mr. Zimmerman has a white father and Hispanic mother.

Trayvon's parents reacted with relief at the charges, with his mother, Sybrina Fulton, thanking all the public outrage from her heart, "which has no color."

"We simply wanted an arrest. We wanted nothing more, nothing less," she said at a news conference in Washington after the announcement in Florida. "Thank you, Lord, thank you, Jesus."

The parents were attending a national conference sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. Mr. Sharpton quickly took credit for the charges, saying the case had been set aside by authorities until "an outcry from all over this country came because [Trayvon's] parents refused to leave it there."

Public authorities "decided to review [the case] based on public pressure" and "had there not been pressure, there would not have been a second look," Mr. Sharpton said at the televised news conference, which began as soon as Ms. Corey's news conference had ended.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Zimmerman hired a new attorney after his former counsels said Tuesday that he had cut off contact with them and, as a result, they could no longer represent him.

Mark O'Mara said Wednesday evening that his client would plead not guilty and would ask for bail at Thursday's hearing, despite the possible danger to Mr. Zimmerman, who has become the object of death threats, public vilification and bounties from the Black Panthers.

"I want him around, so I can have free access to him," Mr. O'Mara said, adding Mr. Zimmerman was "rational" and had been told to "stay calm; listen to my advice."

He added that he hoped that all the "high emotions" surrounding the case might dissipate and his client can get a fair trial.

"I'm hoping the hatred settles down, now that there is a process moving forward," Mr. O'Mara said.

Before Ms. Corey's news conference, streets in downtown Jacksonville were blocked off and security was heightened in anticipation of unrest following the announcement. Gov. Rick Scott urged Floridians to handle the news with calm.

"This matter is now in the hands of the judicial system, and I am confident justice will prevail," Mr. Scott, a Republican, said in a statement after the charges were announced.

"As the process continues, it is critical that we be patient and allow the proceedings to move forward in a fair and transparent manner," he said. "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."

White House spokesman Jay Carney said in advance that President Obama would have no reaction to the charges. Mr. Obama commented on the case March 23, after the case was already under investigation by the Justice Department and FBI, saying that if had a son, "he'd look like Trayvon."

"I certainly don't expect you'll hear from him about an ongoing investigation," Mr. Carney said. "I think that he and I, and others, will refrain from commenting on it."

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Wednesday that the Justice Department is continuing to probe into whether the case merits federal civil-rights charges, although he acknowledged that it would have to meet a "high bar" to warrant federal action.

"I know many of you are greatly — and rightly — concerned about the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages," Mr. Holder told the National Action Network at its 14th annual convention, which focused on the Martin case.

"If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil-rights crime, we will take appropriate action," Mr. Holder said. "I also can make you another promise: that at every level of today's Justice Department, preventing and combating youth violence and victimization is, and will continue to be, a top priority."

Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, who attended the conference, said before the charges were announced that he had vowed to make sure that his son's death "was not in vain."

"I can recall calling attorney [Benjamin] Crump. Attorney Crump told me not to worry about it, that they were going to arrest him," Mr. Martin said. "It's 44 days later, George Zimmerman is still walking free. It's 44 days later, my son is still in a mausoleum."

The case has placed the spotlight on Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gives citizens greater latitude in using lethal force in self-defense. In a news conference Wednesday in New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and black leaders said they planned to launch a national campaign against "stand your ground" laws.

"You just cannot have a civilized society where everybody can have a gun and make their own decisions as to whether someone is threatening or not," Mr. Bloomberg said.

In the police report, Mr. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, said he was approached as he walked to his truck by Trayvon. The report says the two exchanged words and Trayvon jumped on top of him, causing him to fall to the ground, punched him in the nose and began beating his head against the sidewalk.

Before the fight, Mr. Zimmerman had called 911 to report a suspicious person walking through the community. In a tape of the call, Mr. Zimmerman says "This guy looks like he's up to no good."

Asked by the 911 operator whether the person was "black, white or Hispanic," Mr. Zimmerman says, "He looks black."

That widely played tape was misleadingly edited by NBC to go directly from Mr. Zimmerman saying Trayvon looked suspicious to saying he looks black, with no interruption or query in between.

The operator told Mr. Zimmerman not to follow him, and he responded by complaining that bad guys "always get away." Mr. Zimmerman says he then walked to his truck, and that Trayvon approached him from behind.

Trayvon's parents said he had walked to a convenience store to purchase an iced tea and Skittles, and was returning to his father's girlfriend's home.

Several legal analysts on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" show Wednesday night agreed that the second-degree murder charge doesn't seem supportable based on what is publicly known and therefore Ms. Corey, who repeatedly declined detailed questions about the case, has to have further facts or witnesses.

"She must. She must have evidence of what happened in those few minutes" before the shooting, Jeffrey Toobin said.

Under Florida law, second-degree murder is a homicide that was not planned but resulted from an "imminently dangerous act" reflecting a "depraved" disregard for life. By contrast, manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years, is a death resulting from a "reckless" but not necessarily "depraved" act.

"Manslaughter would have made more sense given the facts that have become public," CNN legal analyst Mark Nejame said.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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