Apr 092012
 
Authors: The Orlando Sentinel Rene Stutzman and Jeff Weiner

SANFORD, Fla. _ Critics who for weeks have demanded that George Zimmerman be arrested for killing Trayvon Martin waited another day Monday, and the special prosecutor in the case announced she will not take the case to a grand jury.

Lawyers trying to interpret that move differed on what it means, but one point is now unequivocal: Prosecutor Angela Corey will not charge Zimmerman with first-degree murder. That requires an indictment by a grand jury.

Before turning the case over to prosecutors, Sanford police classified the case as a possible manslaughter.

In a written statement, Corey’s office stressed that the decision not to call a grand jury “should not be considered a factor” in whether Zimmerman will be prosecuted in Martin’s death.

Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump said Martin’s parents were not surprised by the announcement and remain “hopeful that a decision will be reached very soon to arrest George Zimmerman and give Trayvon Martin’s family the simple justice they have been seeking all along.”

For weeks, Crump and Martin’s father have called for an immediate arrest, but in a prepared statement Monday, Crump asked for patience.

“The family has been patient throughout this process and asks that those who support them do the same during this very important investigation,” Crump said.

Zimmerman shot Martin on Feb. 26, telling police he acted in self-defense. He had called police, identifying Martin as suspicious, then got out of his sport-utility vehicle and followed him on foot.

Several witnesses called 911, reporting a fight between the two. One of those calls captured cries for help and a gunshot. Zimmerman told police that Martin knocked him down with one punch, then began slamming his head into a sidewalk.

Critics say the cries came from Martin and that Zimmerman should have been arrested that night.

Legal experts said Corey’s announcement showed one of her hallmark traits: She’s not afraid to make tough decisions.

Jeremy Lasnetski, a Jacksonville-based defense attorney, used to be a prosecutor and said he tried cases with Corey. Her choice to decide this case without a grand jury reflects her personality, he said.

“When she gets on a case,” he says, “she’s kind of like a pit bull.”

Grand juries are often seen as a way to avoid “political fallout,” said Charles Rose, Stetson University College of Law professor and director of Stetson’s Center for Excellence in Advocacy. If people don’t like what the grand jury decides, it is to blame _ not the elected state attorney. Corey is the elected state attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties.

“By not sending it to the grand jury, she’s doing the hard, right thing,” Rose said. “This is what senior prosecutors are paid to do.”

Richard Hornsby, an Orlando criminal-defense attorney said, “This is exactly the type of case that a grand jury should consider.”

They are common in high-profile cases, Hornsby said, and particularly useful in those that generate a great deal of public debate. They lend the legal process more credibility by taking the decision out of the hands of one person, he said.

Hal Uhrig, an attorney for Zimmerman, told CNN in a written statement that he did not know what Corey’s decision would be but said the fact that she is making it without a grand jury is a “courageous move on her part.” Neither Uhrig nor Zimmerman’s attorney Craig Sonner would comment Monday.

Corey was appointed special prosecutor by Gov. Rick Scott two and a half weeks ago. In Orlando at Evans High School on Monday, Scott repeated what he’s said before: He’s confident she’ll “make a good decision.”

“What everybody wants is … justice,” Scott said, both for Martin and Zimmerman.

Also Monday, college students who had marched from Daytona to Sanford staged a sit-in, blocking the front doors of the Sanford Police Department for nearly five hours.

They walked away peacefully after persuading city officials to hold a community forum next week.
Six protesters, dressed in hoodies, huddled at the building’s entrance and were prepared for arrest, but police officers ignored them. Instead, officers just locked the front doors and used a back entrance.

Corey telephoned protester leaders about noon, helping persuade them to move away from the building’s front doors. They then passed on a summary of what she told them.

“She didn’t give us many details, but she seemed to hint that something would happen shortly, and that makes us very happy,” said Gabe Pendas, 28.

Sanford police later said the protesters had little real impact on their operations. The only real hardship, said Sgt. David Morgenstern, was that members of the public who need to be fingerprinted for job applications had to be turned away.

Pendas, a Florida State University graduate, vowed to return to Sanford if the city doesn’t hold that April 19 forum and address the concerns of its black citizens.

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