JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The neighborhood watch volunteer who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was arrested and charged with second-degree murder Wednesday after months of mounting tensions and protests across the country.
George Zimmerman, 28, could get up to life in prison if convicted in the slaying of the unarmed black teenager.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey announced the charges but would not discuss how she arrived at them or disclose other details of her investigation, saying: “That’s why we try cases in court.”
Second-degree murder is typically brought in cases when there is a fight or other confrontation that results in death and but does involve a premeditated plan to kill.
Corey would not disclose Zimmerman’s whereabouts for his safety but said that he will be in court within 24 hours.
Zimmerman’s new attorney, Mark O’Mara said Zimmerman will plead not guilty. The lawyer asked that people not jump to conclusions about his client’s guilt and said he is “hoping that the community will calm down” now that charges have been filed. “I’m expecting a lot of work and hopefully justice in the end,” he said.
Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, has asserted since the Feb. 26 killing in Sanford that he shot in self-defense after the teenager attacked him. Martin’s family argued Zimmerman was the aggressor.
The shooting brought demands from black leaders for his arrest and set off a furious nationwide debate over race and self-defense that reached all the way to the White House.
Corey said the decision to bring charges was based on the facts and the law, declaring: “We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.”
One of the biggest hurdles to Zimmerman’s arrest over the past month was Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which gives people wide leeway to use deadly force without having to retreat in the face of danger. The lack of an arrest had sparked outrage and rallies for justice in the Orlando suburb and across the country.
On Tuesday, Zimmerman’s lawyers announced they were withdrawing from the case because they hadn’t heard from him since Sunday and didn’t know where he was. They portrayed his mental state as fragile.
“He is largely alone. You might even say he is emotionally crippled by virtue of the pressure of this case,” said one of the lawyers, Hal Uhrig.
The case has drawn the interest of the highest levels of the Obama administration, with the Justice Department’s civil rights division opening its own investigation.
Tensions have risen in recent days in Sanford. Someone shot up an unoccupied police car Tuesday as it sat outside the neighborhood where Martin was killed. And a demonstration by college students closed the town’s police station Monday.
Six weeks ago, Martin was returning to the home of his father’s fiancee from a convenience store when Zimmerman started following him. Zimmerman told police dispatchers he looked suspicious. At some point, the two got into a fight and Zimmerman used his gun.
Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him after he had given up chasing the teenager and was returning to his truck. He told detectives that Martin knocked him to the ground and began slamming his head on the sidewalk. Zimmerman’s father said that Martin threatened to kill his son and that Zimmerman suffered a broken nose.
A video taken about 40 minutes after the shooting as Zimmerman arrived at the Sanford police station showed him walking unassisted without difficulty. There were no plainly visible bandages or blood on his clothing, but Zimmerman may have had a small wound on the back of his head.
The shooting ignited resentment toward the police department, and Police Chief Bill Lee temporarily stepped down to let passions cool.
Civil rights groups and others have held rallies around the country, saying the shooting was unjustified. Many of the protesters wore the same type of hooded sweat shirt that Martin had on that day, suggesting his appearance and race had something to do with his killing.
President Barack Obama injected himself into the debate, urging Americans to “do some soul-searching.” “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” Obama said March 23.
The local prosecutor disqualified himself from the case, and Gov. Rick Scott appointed Corey, the prosecutor for Jacksonville, to take it over.