George Zimmerman murder charge sets up hurdles for prosecutors in Trayvon Martin shooting

April 12th, 2012 by Staff

(CBS/AP) SANFORD, Fla. – After an extraordinary public campaign to make an arrest in the shooting of an unarmed black teen, a Florida prosecutor came back with a murder charge in the case that has galvanized the nation for weeks.

But prosecutors face steep hurdles to win a second-degree murder conviction against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, experts say. They will have to prove Zimmerman intentionally went after Martin instead of shooting him in self-defense, refute arguments that a Florida law empowered him to use deadly force and get past a judge’s ruling at a pretrial hearing.

Zimmerman, 28, who turned himself in at a county jail Wednesday after prosecutor Angela Corey announced the charge, was to appear before a magistrate Thursday and plead not guilty in the Feb. 26 shooting of the 17-year-old that set off a nationwide debate about racial profiling and the rights to self-defense.

“He is concerned about getting a fair trial and a fair presentation,” his attorney, Mark O’Mara said. “He is a client who has a lot of hatred focused on him. I’m hoping the hatred settles down … he has the right to his own safety and the case being tried before a judge and jury.”

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Legal experts said Corey chose a tough route with the murder charge, which could send Zimmerman to prison for life if he’s convicted, over manslaughter, which usually carries 15-year prison terms and covers reckless or negligent killings.

CBS News legal analyst Jack Ford, a former prosecutor, said Corey faces a more mountainous task than a prosecutor usually would because of Florida’s expansive self-defense laws.

The prosecutors must prove Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin was rooted in hatred or ill will and counter his claims that he shot Martin to protect himself while patrolling his gated community in the Orlando suburb of Sanford. Zimmerman’s lawyers would only have to prove by a preponderance of evidence — a relatively low legal standard — that he acted in self-defense at a pretrial hearing to prevent the case from going to trial.

There’s a “high likelihood it could be dismissed by the judge even before the jury gets to hear the case,” Florida defense attorney Richard Hornsby said.

Corey announced the charges Wednesday after an extraordinary 45-day campaign for Zimmerman’s arrest, led by Martin’s parents and civil rights activists, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Protesters wore hooded sweatshirts like the one Martin had on the night of the shooting. The debate reached all the way to the White House, where President Obama observed last month: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

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Corey would not discuss how she reconciled conflicting accounts of the shooting by Zimmerman, witnesses and phone recordings that indicated Martin thought Zimmerman was following him.

“We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition. We prosecute based on the facts on any given case as well as the laws of the state of Florida,” Corey said.

Martin’s parents expressed relief over the decision to prosecute the person who shot their son.

“The question I would really like to ask him is, if he could look into Trayvon’s eyes and see how innocent he was, would he have then pulled the trigger? Or would he have just let him go on home?” said his father, Tracy Martin.

Many attorneys said they had expected the prosecutor to opt for the lesser charge of manslaughter. The most severe homicide charge, first-degree murder, is subject to the death penalty in Florida and requires premeditation — something all sides agreed was not present in this case.

“I predicted manslaughter, so I’m a little surprised,” said Michael Seigel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Florida. “But she has more facts than I do.”

O’Mara, Zimmerman’s attorney, said his client would plead not guilty and invoke Florida’s so-called “stand your ground” law, which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat during a fight.

The confrontation took place in a gated community where Martin was staying with his father and his father’s fiancDee. Martin was walking back in the rain from a convenience store when Zimmerman spotted him and called 911. He followed the teenager despite being told not to by a police dispatcher and the two got into a struggle.

Zimmerman told police Martin punched him in the nose, knocking him down, and then began banging the volunteer’s head on the sidewalk. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in fear for his life. Sanford police took Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, into custody the night of the shooting but released him without charging him.

A judge could dismiss the charge based on the “stand your ground” law, legal experts said. But some experts say the judge will also be under tremendous pressure to let the case go forward.

“Judges are not likely to take that out of the hands of the jury,” said Florida defense attorney Randy Reep.

2 Responses

  1. The Masked Blogger

    Believing that Trayvon had nothing better to do than to: stop walking home, drop his candy and pop just so he can beat someone up makes about as much sense as George thinking to himself,’Gee, I sure hope I get a chance to kill someone. In fact, I’ll make it more challenging for myself by calling 911.’ G made the mistake(not by any intentional, nefarious means) of following T too close. T felt that he was in danger (like a lot of us would) and naturally, the adrenaline kicked in. T did nothing wrong and G was acting in self defense. The losers: The media, for adding/changing the “news” every 20 minutes, and people who are blaming “stand your ground.” So…putting yourself in jepardy by NOT defending yourself is suppose to be the intelligent alternitive? History will show that stand-your-ground will end up saving more innocent lives than without it. You got a better theory? Let’s here it.

  2. Brent

    No, he made the mistake of following him AT ALL, especially after the popo told him, WE DON’T NEED YOU TO DO THAT. G was in the habit of following and calling the popo on black people.

    The only person who could invoke the stand your ground law was T. He was the one being pursued.

    GZ will get off. It probably will happen at the stand your ground hearing. That law will be applied disportionately to help non black people and hurt black people.

    Look at look at the case of the woman with the ex husband who had put a history of beating her, who had put her in the hospital and whom she had a restraining order against at some point.

    She shot a warning shot in the ceiling. No one died. No one injured.

    She’s doing 20 years after the judge denied her right to stand her ground and then jury deliberated for 12 minutes.

    Yep, she is black.

    Stand your ground laws are largely passed by white people who fear black people.

    (In case you’re wondering… I”m white.)

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