Formally charged with second-degree murder and taken into custody Wednesday, Mr. Zimmerman and his new attorney first will ask that the suspect be released on bond while prosecution and defense organize evidence for an expected trial. That decision is likely to come Thursday.
But in this highly charged case — the shooting death of an unarmed young black man by a white-Hispanic neighborhood watch captain in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. — the first concern may be for Zimmerman’s safety. There had been threats on his life, and neither special prosecutor Angela Corey nor Zimmerman lawyer Mark O’Mara would say Wednesday where Zimmerman (who turned himself in) is being held.
“There’s been a groundswell of emotion on both sides,” Mr. O’Mara said at a press conference Wednesday evening. “We need to calm this down. If George Zimmerman were walking down the street today, he’d be at risk. We’re hoping to keep him safe.”
The initial response from Trayvon Martin’s parents, civil rights advocates, and local officials expressed the same desire for calm and a safe atmosphere in which to proceed with the legal course of justice.
“We simply wanted an arrest,” said Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, at a press conference. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, justice will be served.”
Unrest in the community will subside now that Zimmerman has been charged, predicted Shayan Elahi of the Florida Civil Rights Association.
“The arrest is partial closure for Trayvon’s family and the community at large,” Mr. Elahi told the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Ft. Lauderdale. “It also means that Zimmerman will have his right to due process in court and not in the court of public opinion.”
That due process includes the following steps, as outlined by the Miami Herald:
•Zimmerman faces a charge of second-degree murder with a firearm, a first-degree felony punishable by a minimum of 25 years in prison and up to life behind bars.
•Within 15 days, prosecutors must start providing Zimmerman’s defense attorney with “discovery,” the first witness statements, police reports, and photos that will be used as evidence against Zimmerman. Most of the evidence will be released to the public and media, although the substance of any of his confessions can be withheld before trial.
•Once all the evidence has been provided to Zimmerman’s defense team, his lawyer can file a motion for immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law. A judge must hold an evidentiary hearing and decide by a “preponderance of the evidence” whether Zimmerman was acting in self-defense.
•If a judge denies his motion for immunity, a date will be set for a trial in front of a jury. Zimmerman’s defense attorney could also ask for a “change of venue,” meaning Zimmerman could be tried in a different county in Florida if a judge deems pretrial publicity has been so overwhelming that it is impossible for the defendant to get a fair trial close to home.
Many legal experts had expected the prosecutor to opt for the lesser charge of manslaughter, which usually carries 15 years behind bars and covers reckless or negligent killings, rather than second-degree murder, which involves a killing that results from a “depraved” disregard for human life, the Associated Press reported.
The most severe homicide charge, first-degree murder, is subject to the death penalty in Florida and requires premeditation — something that all sides agreed was not present in this case.
“I predicted manslaughter, so I’m a little surprised,” Michael Seigel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Florida, told the AP. “But she has more facts than I do.”
Under Florida’s “sunshine law,” Zimmerman’s expected trial is very likely to be televised — as was the controversial Casey Anthony case, which riveted a public eager to know whether a young mother would be convicted for killing her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. (Ms. Anthony was found not guilty of first-degree murder, aggravated child abuse, and aggravated manslaughter of a child.)
Attorney O’Mara said Wednesday that Zimmerman would plead not guilty and use the Stand Your Ground law as a principal element of his defense.
With Zimmerman’s arrest, the community begins to adjust to this latest turn in a case that has drawn international interest, prompting daily rallies and online petitions.
For now, there’s some sense of relief, officials report.
“I think we are heading toward justice,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Miami congresswoman who represents the district in which Trayvon Martin lived.
“The youngsters who attended high school with [Trayvon] are absolutely distraught,” she told Politico. “This sort of gives them some hope that they can proceed with their senior year…. We had grief counselors in schools with them to help them get through this because they are afraid! Afraid to walk down the street and think that this could happen to them.”
“This is an event that has touched many hearts and many lives,” Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett told reporters at City Hall. “We’ll be seeking healing for the city of Sanford and asking for the community’s cooperation.”