Prosecutors looking for a second-degree murder conviction against George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer charged in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, will likely have a tough road ahead of them as they attempt to prove the defendant's actions are not protected by the state's controversial self-defense law known as stand your ground.
Zimmerman, 28, was charged after the launch of a nationwide grassroots campaign aimed at pressuring Florida authorities to make an arrest in the shooting. While he was initially released from police custody without charges, the prosecutor assigned to the case will now be tasked with proving Zimmerman intentionally went after the unarmed Martin, instead of shooting him in self-defense.
Zimmerman turned himself over to police on Wednesday, said special prosecutor Angela Corey that evening, during a press conference held to announce the charges against the defendant. He is scheduled to appear before a Seminole County magistrate early Thursday afternoon, where he will plead not guilty to the Feb. 26 shooting of the 17-year-old Martin, according to his defense attorney, Mark O'Mara.
He is concerned about getting a fair trial and a fair presentation, O'Mara said on Thursday during an appearance on The Today Show. 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.
O'Mara, who took on Zimmerman's case on Wednesday evening after his previous defense team resigned, expressed surprise at the charges, saying he thought it might be manslaughter -- a lesser charge that typically carries a 15-year prison term instead of the life sentence Zimmerman now potentially faces if he is convicted.
Thursday's bond hearing will be Zimmerman's first appearance before a judge, who will explain the charges against him. The judge could order Zimmerman released on bail, or held in police custody without bond.
Details of the events that led to Martin's death are still emerging, following 45 days of highly-publicized protests, petitions and constant national media coverage of the case. The narrative has fluctuated, with some framing the shooting as a racially-motivated hate crime on Zimmerman's part -- Martin was black; Zimmerman is the son of a white father and Hispanic mother -- while others argue the neighborhood watch volunteer shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him and slammed his head against the ground.
As of now, the moments leading to the death of Martin remain shrouded in mystery. Even those closest to the case have acknowledged it may not be cut and dried; on Thursday morning, Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, told the Today Show that despite her push for an arrest, she believes her son's death was an accident.
I believe it was an accident. I believe that it just got out of control and he [Zimmerman] couldn't turn the clock back, Fulton said.
The Challenges of a Conviction
Corey, during Wednesday's press conference, admitted the intense public scrutiny surrounding the case could be problematic, but insisted her decision to file charges was not swayed by the weeks of protests and more than two million petition signatures calling for Zimmerman's arrest.
We did not come to this decision lightly, said Corey, who was assigned the case by Gov. Rick Scott. We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.
To prove Zimmerman is guilty of second-degree murder, Corey will have to demonstrate that he acted with a depraved mind regardless of human life when he shot Martin. Meaning, the prosecution will have to viably prove that Martin's shooting was rooted in hatred or ill will, to counter Zimmerman's self-defense argument.
O'Mara said his client will invoke Florida's so-called stand your ground law in his defense, which gives individuals wide leeway to use deadly force in situations where they believe their life or body is in danger, without a duty to retreat. If the controversial law is used as an affirmative defense, to prevent the case from even going to trial Zimmerman's lawyer will only have to prove at a pretrial hearing, by a preponderance of evidence -- or in other words, had a reasonable belief such force was necessary -- that his client acted in self-defense.
That's a very real possibility, according to Florida defense attorney Richard Hornsby, who told The Associated Press there is a high likelihood it could be dismissed by the judge even before the jury gets to hear the case.
However, others say the judge is likely to deny the immunity motion since the facts surrounding Martin's death are still in high dispute. Ralph Behr, another Florida criminal defense attorney, said in Zimmerman's case the judge will probably allow the case to go to trial, where the defendant will have to take his chances with a jury like any other criminal defendant.
Behr has filed eight motions for immunity under stand your ground, all of which have been denied.
Before Florida passed the law in 2005, individuals were only allowed to use lethal force to defend themselves, without being required to retreat, in their own homes. Now, that right has been extended to individuals who are attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be, a vague requirement that opponents argue encourages a shoot first mentality.
Stand your ground offers some procedural advantages to defendants that are not available in a majority of criminal cases. Defendants who are accused of a crime usually only have one chance to avoid a trial through a motion to dismiss. If there are factual disputes between the government and the defense, a judge is required to deny the motion without a hearing and allow the case to proceed to trial.
However, those pursuing a stand your ground defense have a right to an additional evidentiary hearing where the judge has to make factual determinations about the case, a guarantee that Reuters reports has made the defense popular with lawyers since it gives defendants two opportunities to avoid prosecution.
There are a few details that both the prosecution and the defense can agree on: the confrontation between Zimmerman and Martin occurred in a gated community in Sanford, Florida on the evening on February 26, where the teen was staying with his father and his father's fiancée.
While walking home from a convenience store, Martin attracted the notice of Zimmerman, who was patrolling the neighborhood in a sports utility vehicle. He called 911 to report a real suspicious guy and claimed he --Martin -- had his hand in his waistband and looked like he was up to no good.
After discussing his location with the emergency dispatcher, Zimmerman reportedly attempted to chase down Martin on foot, even after the dispatcher warned him against it.
Several minutes later, according to other callers to 911 in the neighborhood, Zimmerman and Martin reportedly got into a wrestling match on the ground. There was a scream, a single shot rang out, and then Martin was dead.
From there, the timeline of events becomes murkier. Zimmerman's father alleged that Martin threatened to kill his son and even broke his nose. However, a video taken about 40 minutes after the incident as Zimmerman arrived at the Sanford Police Department reportedly shows him walking unassisted, with no bandages or blood plainly visible on his clothing. The video does show a police officer inspecting the back of Zimmerman's head, where there appeared to be a wound.
While some experts have claimed voice analysis of the 911 calls indicate it was Martin who cried out for help during the last moments of his life -- and not Zimmerman, as the defendant's family claims -- the Orlando Sentinel newspaper reported that others have not been able to confirm the cry was Martin's.