George Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who shot an unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, was charged with second-degree murder in the black teenager’s death in Sanford, Florida, a state prosecutor said.
The decision was announced at a press conference today in Jacksonville. The youth’s death triggered protests in several U.S. cities and drew comment from President Barack Obama after officials initially declined to prosecute Zimmerman.
Brian Tannebaum, a veteran defense attorney in Miami, said he was surprised by the second-degree murder charge, which he said prosecutors may have a harder time proving than if they had charged Zimmerman with manslaughter.
“I think the jury is going to have a tough time with the idea that George Zimmerman murdered this kid. The word murder takes away any possibility that it was an accident,” he said. “When you look at manslaughter, you’re talking about something that wasn’t excusable or justifiable and resulted in death. By charging this as second degree murder, the state is saying ‘we don’t think this is an act of negligence. We think this was an intentional killing.’”
Tannebaum, the immediate past president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that under Florida law, Zimmerman would have faced a maximum of 30 years in prison if he was convicted of manslaughter because Martin was under 18. If Zimmerman is convicted of second-degree murder, he faces a minimum term of 25 years because a gun was used and may be sentenced to life in prison, Tannebaum said.
Angela Corey, the special prosecutor named to investigate Martin’s death, said at a press conference today that Zimmerman is being held without bond on the murder charges. She said a bond hearing would be held next week in Seminole County, where Sanford, Florida is located.
“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Corey told reporters.
The state’s “stand your ground” law, which allows individuals who feel threatened in a public place to “meet force with force,” prevented them from making an arrest in the case, officials said at the time.
On the night that Martin was slain, two officials “disregarded” the lead homicide investigator’s recommendation to arrest the suspect, Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin’s family, said in a letter to the Justice Department, which is also investigating the matter.
Zimmerman, 28, claimed self-defense. The youth attacked him on a sidewalk near his home, he told authorities in Sanford, a city of 54,000 people about 20 miles north of Orlando. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin after being punched in the nose and having his head slammed into the sidewalk, according to City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.
Civil rights activists including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton called for Zimmerman’s arrest and have criticized the state’s “stand your ground” law. Martin’s father, Tracy, told the Sanford City Council last month that Zimmerman “needs to be put on trial,” and “needs to be given a sentence by a jury of his peers.”
Zimmerman said he was driving to a grocery store when he saw Martin walking through the gated community, according to Bonaparte. Zimmerman followed the teenager on foot and called the police to report a suspicious person, according to a recording authorities released. Zimmerman described Martin as black, acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.
A dispatcher told Zimmerman to stop following Martin, and to wait for officers to arrive.
Zimmerman told the police he had been walking back to his SUV when Martin approached from behind and asked whether he had a problem. Zimmerman said no. Martin said, “Well, you do now” and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to the account Bonaparte conveyed.
Zimmerman told officers he fell and that Martin got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk. A police report said Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head. Zimmerman said he began yelling for help “but no one would help me,” according to the incident report.
A month after the shooting, Obama called for a full investigation by authorities including the federal government.
“I can only imagine what these parents are going through,” he said. “And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids.”