April 12 (Bloomberg) -- Pastor Valerie J. Houston spoke of lighting a candle on Sundays for Trayvon Martin and brought the congregation at Allen Chapel AME Church in Sanford, Florida, to its feet.
“There has been an arrest,” Houston said last night during a prayer service after a murder charge was filed in the death of Martin, shot as he walked unarmed in his father’s neighborhood. “Thank you, Jesus. Justice has been served.”
George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer from Sanford, was charged with second-degree murder in the Feb. 26 killing of Martin, a 17-year-old who he thought was a burglar. Zimmerman, 28, may face life in prison if convicted, said State Attorney Angela Corey, who announced the move from her Jacksonville office yesterday. He turned himself in and was held without bond, she said.
The killing of the black youth by a man whose father is white and mother Hispanic sparked protests and rallies across the country, a federal civil-rights investigation and comment from President Barack Obama, who said that if he had a son, the child would have looked like Martin.
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s Orlando-based criminal defense attorney, said he was “surprised” by the charge. Zimmerman, who may face a bond hearing in Seminole County today, will plead not guilty, O’Mara said.
“He is troubled by everything that has happened,” O’Mara said at a news conference. “I cannot imagine living in George Zimmerman’s shoes.”
Tracy Martin, the victim’s father, told reporters in Washington after the charge was announced that “we’ve got a long way to go and we have faith. It feels good to know that he’s off the streets.”
In February, Zimmerman was driving out of his gated community in Sanford, a city of 54,000 about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Orlando, when he encountered Martin, who was walking home from a convenience store.
Zimmerman followed the teenager on foot and called the police to report a suspicious person, according to a recording that authorities released. Zimmerman described Martin as acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.
A dispatcher told Zimmerman that he didn’t need to follow Martin and to wait for officers.
Zimmerman told the police he was walking back to his SUV when Martin attacked him from behind, according to an account confirmed by City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, championed by the National Rifle Association, allows residents to use deadly force when they feel threatened, even if they are capable of retreating. Authorities said the law prevented them from charging Zimmerman and police released him after the shooting.
The 2005 law has been invoked at least 140 times in Florida, according to a Tampa Bay Times survey of public records and news stories. Governor Rick Scott, a Republican who appointed Corey as special prosecutor March 22, has ordered a task force to review the measure.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime gun-control advocate, and leaders from black groups held a news conference in Washington to press for changes in similar laws enacted in half the states, often at the behest of the NRA.
“The NRA should be ashamed of themselves,” Bloomberg said. “Plain and simple, this is just trying to give people a license to murder.”
The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Planning to Win
Corey said she would attack Stand Your Ground as a defense.
“We have to have a reasonable certainty of conviction before we file charges,” she said.
In Sanford, where city officials estimated 10,000 people gathered March 22 calling for Zimmerman to be arrested, downtown was quiet after the announcement aside from a crush of reporters at city hall and three news helicopters overhead.
Bonaparte and Mayor Jeff Triplett said they were “relieved” by the charges and hoped they might promote healing. The nation can learn from what happened in Sanford, Triplett said in an interview.
“It’s almost like there was a wound, and this has scratched the scab off of that wound, kind of opened up a lot of history,” Triplett said.
While the arrest was welcome, it doesn’t address issues including “vigilante law” in Florida, said Jabari Paul, religious-affairs leader for the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We may have been one step to closer to getting on the road of truth today,” Paul said at Allen Chapel. “But the truth of the matter is, is that even though we celebrate victory on one hand, we still have a problem on the other.”
Still, Martin can now rest in peace, said Francis Oliver, 68, a retired elementary-school teacher from Sanford who attended last night’s service.
“Justice has shown its face, and justice is coming,” Oliver said in an interview.
To contact the reporters on this story: Michael C. Bender in Tallahassee at email@example.com; Derek Kinner in Jacksonville, Florida, at firstname.lastname@example.org; Mark Niquette in Sanford at email@example.com
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