For weeks, online and on the streets, people called for the arrest of the man who fatally shot an unarmed black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin. To them the shooting constituted what they no doubt saw as murder, despite the speculations of many legal experts that, at most, the man, George Zimmerman, might be charged with manslaughter, a less serious felony. Then last week, after he was finally arrested, news outlets across the country spread the word, emphasizing the second-degree-murder charge and reporting that if he is convicted, Zimmerman faces life in prison under Florida law.
Technically, that is true, but don't count on it. While murder requires proof that Zimmerman acted with "depraved" indifference to human life, manslaughter requires only proof that Zimmerman was reckless or negligent.
As the state case sorts itself out, don't get your hopes up for a federal prosecution. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, obviously trying to pave the way for what might be a not-so-popular outcome, said during a press conference last week: "For a federal hate crime, we have to prove the highest standard in the law. You know, something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard. We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with the requisite state of mind."
Expect this to be a long, drawn-out case, challenging not only our attention span but also the controversial "Stand your ground" law that could be the linchpin of Zimmerman's defense. It has usually worked when invoked, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Under the law, adopted in 2005, a person has no obligation to retreat from a situation where he reasonably thinks his life is in danger. He can shoot; authorities ask questions later.
The anticipated pretrial "Stand your ground" hearing would be months off but could result in a judge setting Zimmerman free because he acted in self-defense. Failing that, there could be a plea bargain agreement before trial, not unusual in Florida murder cases. Or a jury could decide to convict him not of murder but rather of manslaughter. Murder carries a sentence of life; manslaughter, 15 years.
So there is lots to chew on and many hurdles between now and a close to the case that began Feb. 26. That's when Zimmerman, an overly eager neighborhood-watch volunteer in a section of Sanford, Fla., where he lived and Trayvon was visiting, came upon the young man and became suspicious. He followed Trayvon from his automobile and later by foot. Zimmerman confronted him and ultimately shot him.
"This is just the beginning. We have a long way to go," Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, said at a news conference following the arrest. Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, added: "We simply wanted an arrest. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, justice will be served."
That's what the family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, seemed to have in mind: "Zimmerman will have his day in court, and Trayvon's family will have their day in court. That's all we've been asking for."
Reacting to these developments in a story that's of greater interest to blacks than to whites, and to Democrats than to Republicans, NAACP President Ben Jealous said in a statement that "the wheels of justice have finally begun to turn. This is an important first step toward bringing justice for Trayvon and his family."
The case almost did not get this far. Zimmerman was originally let go by Sanford police, who relied on his claim of self-defense under Florida's "Stand your ground" law. But weeks of prayer vigils, protests and petitioning (more than 1 million signers at change.com) in the United States and abroad brought action, including the appointment of the special prosecutor, Angela Corey, who announced the murder charge.
She won't admit it, but the attention brought to the case by the masses and the media has had an impact. Still, Corey said, "Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by pressure or petition. We prosecute cases based on the relevant facts of each case and on the laws of the state of Florida."
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who is working with the family both in his capacity as president of the National Action Network, a civil rights group, and as host of a talk show, PoliticsNation, on MSNBC, has said that public pressure most assuredly forced the state to take another look at the case after Sanford officials had essentially closed the book on Trayvon Martin's death. Sharpton gives Corey the benefit of the doubt when she says the charge of murder was not influenced by the public outcry.
Zimmerman is now in jail, segregated from the general population for his protection. But his legal team is taking steps to have him released on bail.
The defense in the pretrial hearing is asking that the charge be tossed out entirely based on Dooley's insistence that it was self-defense when he killed an unarmed neighbor during a dispute over who could use the neighborhood basketball court. He is relying on the "Stand your ground" law as his defense to a manslaughter charge. That is probably the course that Zimmerman's lawyer will follow months from now.
In the meantime, this is what is known about what the prosecution plans to pursue: The two investigators on Corey's staff who filed an affidavit (pdf) explaining why a second-degree-murder charge was warranted said that Zimmerman "profiled" the teenager and "assumed Martin was a criminal." Zimmerman, who lived in the same gated community that Trayvon was visiting, felt that Trayvon did not belong there and called police. "Martin was unarmed and was not committing a crime," the affidavit states.
Zimmerman is depicted as the initial aggressor who ignored instructions from a police dispatcher to not pursue the person he described as acting suspiciously. "During the recorded call, Zimmerman made reference to people he felt had committed and gotten away with break-ins in his neighborhood. Later while talking about Martin, Zimmerman stated 'these —-holes, they always get away' and also said 'these f—king punks.'
"Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued," the affidavit states. Then came chaos, some of it recorded in numerous 911 calls from witnesses in the townhouse complex. "Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest. When police arrived Zimmerman admitted shooting Martin."
The unanswered question so far is whether at some point in the confrontation Trayvon gained the upper hand, leading Zimmerman to reasonably fear for his life — and to stand his ground and fire away.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a frequent contributor to The Root.