JACKSONVILLE, Fla._Special Prosecutor Angela Corey announced Wednesday evening that Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman has been charged in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Corey announced a second-degree murder charge at the State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville, more than six weeks after Martin and Zimmerman’s fatal encounter.
If convicted, Zimmerman would face up to life in prison.
“The team here with me has worked tirelessly looking for answers in Trayvon Martin’s death,” Corey said, introducing her prosecutors and investigators.
Corey added that “we do not prosecute by public pressure.” She said that her office handles all cases the same way, regardless of the scrutiny.
“We will continue to seek the truth in this case,” Corey said. “There is a reason cases are tried in a court of law.”
Corey confirmed that a warrant was issued for Zimmerman’s arrest, and that he is in custody. She declined to say what evidence her office has that would counter his self-defense claim.
She also declined to reveal Zimmerman’s location.
At one point during the news conference, Corey recounted her first meeting with Martin’s parents. She said her prosecution team and an attorney for the teen’s parents also attended.
“We opened our meeting in prayer,” Corey said.
She said she didn’t promise Martin’s parents anything.
At the Washington convention center where Martin’s parents are expected to speak Wednesday night, a crowd of about 40 had gathered around a hallway TV to hear the decision by the special prosecutor.
When she said they would pursue second-degree murder, many in the group erupted in applause.
Soon after Corey’s announcement, the Rev. Al Sharpton addressed the crowd.
“We don’t want anyone high-fiveing tonight. There was no winner tonight,” Sharpton said. “This is not about gloating. This is about pursuing justice.”
Said Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump: “This is only first base.”
Meanwhile, Zimmerman has retained a new lawyer. Veteran Central Florida attorney Mark O’Mara will represent him, CNN legal analyst Mark NeJame confirmed.
NeJame, himself a prominent local lawyer, also confirmed that Zimmerman is in the custody of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Zimmerman, a former altar boy whose dream was to become a police officer, shot and killed Martin, a high school junior, on a rainy evening Feb. 26 in Sanford.
The teen from Miami had been returning from a nearby 7-Eleven, where he bought a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles, when he was spotted by Zimmerman in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community where he was staying with his father’s fiancee.
Zimmerman was in his SUV on his way to Target when he called police, telling them Martin seemed suspicious.
“This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman told a police dispatcher as he watched Martin minutes before the shooting.
In a series of 911 calls shortly after, neighbors described an altercation between the two men. On one call, screams can be heard, and then a gunshot. Martin’s lawyers said the screams are from the teen; Zimmerman’s father said it was his son shouting for help.
Martin’s death has reignited racial tensions across the country and sent protesters to the streets in numbers seldom seen since the anti-war movement of the 1970s.
The outcry prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a civil rights investigation, the governor to put the case in the hands of a special prosecutor and Sanford’s police chief to temporarily step aside.
Civil rights leaders _ including the Rev. Jesse Jackson _ members of Congress and celebrities descended on Central Florida and called for Zimmerman’s arrest. Sharpton, one of the sharpest critics, warned that the quaint lakeside city of 53,000 was on the verge of becoming known as the Birmingham or Selma of the 21st century.
More than 2 million people signed an online petition urging Zimmerman’s arrest.
During the long interval between the shooting and his arrest, Zimmerman remained silent and out of sight.
A month after the shooting, however, one of his lawyers, Craig Sonner, and friend Joe Oliver, a public relations professional, made the rounds of cable and network news talk shows.
They defended him, saying he was no racist but was a man fighting for is life against an attacker.
The teenager broke Zimmerman’s nose and gashed open his head, they said, and Zimmerman fired one lethal shot in self-defense.
Sonner and another attorney, Hal Uhrig, announced Tuesday that they had lost contact with him and, as a consequence, no longer represent him.
Video from a security camera at Sanford’s police headquarters captured Zimmerman being led inside in handcuffs but with no obvious sign of injuries. Enhanced photos, however, appeared to show wounds or swelling to the back of his head.
Much of the state’s evidence against Zimmerman is still secret, something that is likely to change in the next few weeks, but on March 16 Sanford’s city leaders ordered the release of Zimmerman’s phone call to police and audio from several other 911 callers who heard or saw the fight.
They include a recording in which cries for help can be heard in the background then a gunshot then silence.
Police say Zimmerman told them he was the one screaming and that an eye witness gave the same account. Voice analysis experts, however, enhanced the cries for help and told The Orlando Sentinel that they had not come from Zimmerman.
Lawyers for Martin’s family say it was the 17-year-old begging for his life.