JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey has charged neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman turned himself in and is in custody at an undisclosed location, Corey confirmed Wednesday evening at a news conference.
“It is the search for justice for Trayvon Martin that has brought us to this moment,” Corey said.
She said the decision to charge Zimmerman was not taken lightly, and was based on the facts of the case.
“We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition,” Corey said.
The prosecutor’s decision capped weeks of protests nationwide, which were marked by student walkouts in South Florida and throngs of marchers wearing hoodies in cities from New York to Seattle. The case of a hooded high school junior who went for a walk in the rain to get snacks became a national symbol of racial injustice.
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.
Though Corey said the mounting public pressure did not influence her decision, the Rev. Al Sharpton, appearing with Martin’s parents after the charges were announced, credited the protests and other public shows of support with persuading Florida Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a special prosecutor to take a second look at the case.
Sharpton recalled how Sanford, Fla., police once announced, matter-of-factly, that there would be no arrests in the case. Sanford is the Orlando suburb where the shooting occurred.
“Had there not been pressure, there would not have been a second look,” Sharpton said. “That look has led to where we are tonight.”
Martin’s parents thanked supporters of all races who signed petitions demanding that law enforcement take action in the case — more than 2.2 million people signed a viral campaign launched on the website Change.org.
“A heart has no color, it’s not black, it’s not white, it’s red,” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said. “And I want to say thank you, from my heart to your heart.”
Martin died Feb. 26 as he was returning to his father’s home from a 7-Eleven, where he bought Skittles and iced tea. While walking back from the store to the townhouse at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community’s watch captain spotted him and found him suspicious.
There had been recent burglaries, Martin 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 criminal justice, 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 previous 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 Martin and figure out where he went, because the teen took off running.
The operator told him not 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 Martin, he headed back to his truck, and that’s when the teenager came up from behind him. The two exchanged words and Martin allegedly punched Zimmerman in the face, breaking his nose, Zimmerman’s 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 Martin 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 a person they heard screaming for help was now dead. Zimmerman claimed those cries were his unanswered calls for help, and Sanford police believed him.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee said he did not make an arrest because there was no probable cause to refute Zimmerman’s story, and Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law made him immune from arrest.
The law eliminates 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 law in doubt.
Lee’s future is murky as well; after the Sanford city commission took a “no confidence” vote against him, Lee took a paid leave of absence.
It was later revealed that the police senior investigator in the case had requested criminal charges be filed early on in the investigation, but the Brevard-Seminole County state attorney held off pending further review.
The case was transferred to special prosecutor Corey, based in Jacksonville, and is now being investigated by the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Justice Civil Rights division.