It’s been six weeks since George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin setting off a national debate over racial profiling. Everyone from members of the Miami Heat to Rush Limbaugh to President Obama has weighed in on the case. Meanwhile, Zimmerman remained a free man – until yesterday when he was finally taken into custody.
Angela B. Corey, Special Prosecutor for the State of Florida, announced that Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder. This carries a minimum penalty of 25 years in prison and a maximum of life. The prosecution was wise to go with the second-degree charge.
So much of the public anger over Martin’s death has been because a neighborhood watchman killed an unarmed teenager and was not so much as arrested. Corey’s opting for the highest charge reflects sound legal strategy as well as sensitivity to the larger implications of this case.
In Florida, a first-degree murder charge requires a finding of premeditation, which no one is maintaining applies here. A second-degree charge requires a finding that death was caused by a criminal act showing “a depraved mind without regard for human life.” In other words, the state of Florida must prove that Zimmerman deliberately went after Martin, instead of shooting him in self-defense.
Aiming for the toughest possible charge is the mark of a confident prosecutor. Corey is signaling that she fully believes in her case (She can still opt for a lesser charge later). The possibility of a life in prison will no doubt put pressure on Zimmerman, age 28, to accept a plea deal of guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Corey is smart to go for the maximum charge because there is a federal civil rights probe in the works as well. It would be a black eye for the state of Florida if Zimmerman were to get off, especially on a lesser charge, while the Department of Justice aggressively pursued their own case. The second-degree charge shows that the State of Florida is serious about finding out what happened that night in Sanford.
The wild card in this equation is Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. It accords the benefit of the doubt to people who use deadly force to protect themselves, even if they are not in their own home. If a judge finds that Zimmerman acted within his rights under this law, the case could be over without ever reaching a jury.
But the Stand Your Ground defense will be troublesome for Zimmerman. Consider his actions on February 26. He called a 911 operator and reported seeing a suspicious person (Martin). The operator told him to remain in his car and not to follow Martin; Zimmerman did exactly the opposite. Even the author of this law, Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley (R) has stated that Zimmerman is not covered by its provisions. “There is no protection in the Stand Your Ground Law for anyone who pursues and confronts people,” he told Fox News. Nor was the law ever intended to be justification for vigilantism.
It may be a long while before we know the facts surrounding Martin’s killing. It is going to be an arduous task to find an unbiased jury. But I applaud the fearlessness of prosecutor Corey in charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder. She rightly recognizes what is at stake here: our core values of equal protection and justice for all.
Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors