A handcuffed George Zimmerman, charged in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, appeared in court for the first time on Thursday in a hearing notable for what it did not include: a request for bail.
Zimmerman's lawyer said he wanted his client to be released on bond, but not until he could secure a safe place for him to stay while he faces second-degree murder charges in the February 26 killing of 17-year-old Martin in a quiet gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
Zimmerman, hands shackled, head shaved and wearing a close-clipped goatee, addressed a judge via teleconference from the John E. Polk Correctional Facility. He said Yes sir twice during the five-minute hearing.
Judge Mark Herr set formal arraignment for May 29 and agreed to seal some of the case file.
After the hearing, Zimmerman lawyer Mark O'Mara told reporters he chose not to ask for bail because it might only arouse the fervour around the case.
Zimmerman, 28, who is white and Hispanic, has been subjected to death threats and was in hiding for weeks. He was arrested on Wednesday and could face life in prison if convicted.
His booking sheet listed him at 5'10 and weighing 185 lbs., with two tattoos, one of theatrical masks on his left arm and one of the name Christina inside a cross on his chest.
He's facing a second-degree murder charge now, O'Mara said. He's frightened. That would frighten any one of us.
O'Mara told reporters he would seek a bond at a later date. By that time, I hope to have a place for him to be safe.
The killing of Martin more than six weeks ago has set off furious debate about race relations and self-defence laws, punctuated by a series of demonstrations across the country. Even U.S. President Barack Obama commented on the case, saying, If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.
The shooting initially received scant local media attention and went unnoticed nationally, but as Martin's parents and lawyers made public calls for Zimmerman's arrest a firestorm of media coverage and celebrity tweets ensued.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Thursday showed Americans deeply divided over the Martin case, with 91 percent of blacks but only 35 percent of whites saying he was unjustly killed.
Martin's mother accused Zimmerman on Thursday of having stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood, and clarified earlier comments in which she referred to the killing as an accident.
The 'accident' I was referring to was the fact that George Zimmerman and my son ever crossed paths. It was an accidental encounter, she said in a statement. If George Zimmerman hadn't gotten out of his vehicle, this entire incident would have been avoided.
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The encounter began when Zimmerman called police to report what he called a real suspicious guy, then followed Martin against the advice of a police operator.
What transpired next is the subject of intense debate.
Zimmerman told police he was walking back to his truck when Martin attacked him, decking him with one punch to the nose. Martin then repeatedly slammed Zimmerman's head against a concrete walkway, Zimmerman's brother and father have said. He then pulled out a 9mm handgun he was licensed to carry and shot Martin once in the chest.
Witnesses heard screams for help and then a gunshot, sounds that were captured on 911 emergency calls by neighbours. It was unclear who was screaming. Martin's parents said they recognized the voice as their son's, but Zimmerman's brother Robert swore he it was George Zimmerman who was pleading for help.
Critics called Zimmerman's account into question when surveillance video of Zimmerman being taken to the police station revealed little in the way of apparent injuries.
Authorities initially had declined to arrest Zimmerman, citing Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger of getting killed or suffering great bodily harm.
Thousands of people demonstrated in rallies in Sanford and around the country, demanding Zimmerman's arrest and criticizing the police. Civil rights activists say racial prejudice played a role in Zimmerman's view that Martin looked suspicious and in the police decision not to arrest him.
O'Mara noted that a small percentage of murder cases go to trial with many resolved in a plea bargain. We're not taking anything off the table on how this case gets resolved, he said.
(Writing by Dan Burns and Paul Thomasch; Editing by Vicki Allen)