George Zimmerman appears before Florida judge
(CNN) — George Zimmerman, wearing gray jail coveralls, appeared before a Seminole County, Florida, judge Thursday, speaking only a few words as his arraignment was set for next month.
All matters including bond and further motions in the case will be handled by the circuit court, Judge Mark Herr said. The case will be assigned to Judge Jessica Recksiedler going forward.
As the short hearing was concluding, Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, asked that records containing personal information on witnesses, including addresses and telephone numbers in some cases, be sealed. As nothing else besides the probable cause affidavit had been filed in court Thursday, Herr said Recksiedler will address a motion to seal the file.
O’Mara did not ask that Zimmerman be released on bond, although he said earlier in the day he wanted his client released as soon as possible.
He did note, however, that being out on bail could jeopardize Zimmerman’s safety.
“I think nobody would deny the fact if George Zimmerman is walking down the street today, he would be at risk,” he explained.
O’Mara said earlier Thursday he is “truly hoping that there will be a receding of the frustrations or anger now that the process is moving forward.”
Zimmerman, 28, who had been in hiding, turned himself in Wednesday after authorities said he would be charged in the case. He faces a second-degree murder charge in the February 26 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
The development marks a turning point in a case that triggered a nationwide debate about race in America and about Florida’s “stand your ground” law — which allows people to use deadly force anywhere they feel a reasonable threat of death or serious injury.
O’Mara said Zimmerman, who will plead not guilty at his arraignment, is worried about getting a fair trial in Sanford — where thousands have converged to join in protests calling for his arrest and decrying the police department’s handling of the case.
But O’Mara said he does not share those concerns.
“Florida has a very good process in place to make sure we get a fair and impartial jury,” he told CNN. “Other high-profile cases have been able to do so. I trust that the system, the judge, the prosecutor and I will be able to, should the need arise, to get ourselves a fair and impartial jury to hear the case. It may not be in Seminole County.”
Martin’s family, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction that Zimmerman has been charged and is in custody.
“We simply wanted an arrest; we wanted nothing more, nothing less,” the teen’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said Wednesday.
Natalie Jackson, an attorney for Martin’s family, said Thursday the family has only asked “for justice to apply equally for all. If a judge decides (Zimmerman) has a right to bail, then that’s the system, and we’ll respect the system.”
On Thursday, Fulton released a statement clarifying comments she made earlier on NBC’s “Today.”
“I made a comment to the media that was later mischaracterized,” she said. “When I referenced the word ‘accident’ today with regard to Trayvon’s death, in no way did I mean the shooting was an accident.
“We believe that George Zimmerman stalked my son and murdered him in cold blood,” Fulton said. “The ‘accident’ I was referring to was the fact that George Zimmerman and my son ever crossed paths. It was an accidental encounter. If George Zimmerman hadn’t gotten out of his vehicle, this entire incident would have been avoided.
“My son was profiled, followed and murdered by George Zimmerman, and there was nothing accidental about that,” she said.
Earlier, Fulton told NBC, “I believe it was an accident. I believe that it just got out of control, and he couldn’t turn the clock back.”
She told “Today,” “I would ask (Zimmerman), did he know that that was a minor, that he was a teenager and that he did not have a weapon? … I understand that his family is hurting, but think about our family that lost our teenage son.”
Why second-degree murder
The special prosecutor assigned to the case announced the charge against Zimmerman Wednesday — 46 days after the shooting.
During that time, the calls for “Justice for Trayvon” had grown louder and louder, with Martin’s supporters taking to the streets in cities across the nation and on the Internet.
Prosecutor Angela Corey said whether the case is decided by a judge or jury, “I can assure they will only get the relevant, admissible evidence on which they can then base their decisions.”
“Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by pressure or petition. We prosecute cases based on the relevant fact of each case and on the laws of the state of Florida,” said Corey, who has a reputation for taking on tough, controversial cases in the three counties that make up the 4th Judicial Circuit.
Prosecutors usually level a second-degree murder charge when they accuse someone of a killing that is not premeditated or planned. It carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In severity, the charge falls between first-degree — when a person is accused of killing someone deliberately — and manslaughter, when an act results in an unintended death.
“I did think that was certainly the highest charge I ever thought they would charge,” O’Mara said. “It seemed like it might be manslaughter, but … I don’t want to prejudge something when I know nothing about the facts. I would rather that come out the way it’s supposed to.”
Jackson said Thursday she believes the charge was appropriate.
“It’s actually a very brave charge of Angela Corey and really shows that she conducted an independent, impartial and fair investigation in this case,” the attorney said. “She could have easily charged this as a manslaughter to try to appease everyone. She didn’t. She did what prosecutors do. She charged it to the hilt.”
Jurors, however, will have several options under Florida law, including aggravating factors such as Martin’s status as a child, since he was under 18, or other variations of manslaughter, Jackson said.
Charge amid conflicting allegations
Corey did little to put to rest questions that have swirled around what happened the night Martin was killed in the suburban Orlando community. Witnesses and attorneys for both sides have offered conflicting accounts.
What is known is that Martin, wearing a hoodie, left his father’s fiancee’s home in Sanford to get a snack at a nearby convenience store that Sunday evening in February. As he walked home with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea, he was shot and killed by Zimmerman.
Sanford police initially questioned Zimmerman and released him without charges. They said there were no grounds, at the outset, to disprove his account that he’d acted to protect himself.
From there, the case has evolved into conflicting allegations from Zimmerman’s supporters, Martin’s family and authorities.
Zimmerman says he killed Martin in self-defense after the teen punched him and slammed his head on the sidewalk.
One of the responding officers saw a wound on the back of Zimmerman’s head, and surveillance video appeared to show an injury.
Martin’s family and supporters say Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, racially profiled the teen, who was African-American, and called 911 to report a suspicious person in the neighborhood.
A recording of the 911 call includes a police dispatcher asking Zimmerman, “Are you following him?”
“Yeah,” Zimmerman replied.
“OK, we don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher said.
The recording also captured someone pleading for help.
Zimmerman’s family says it was him yelling for help; Martin’s relatives have said they are certain the voice is that of the teen.
Martin’s family has also said a Sanford police detective filed an affidavit saying he did not find Zimmerman’s statements after the shooting credible — but that Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and State Attorney Norm Wolfinger met the night of the shooting and disregarded the detective’s advice.
Neither Sanford police nor prosecutors have confirmed the existence of such an affidavit. And Wolfinger vehemently denied that such a meeting occurred.
The two sides have also debated what Zimmerman whispered under his breath during his 911 call.
Martin’s supporters said he uttered a racial slur; one of Zimmerman’s former lawyers said he told them he whispered “punks.”
O’Mara not a stranger to high-profile cases
O’Mara replaces Zimmerman’s previous lawyers, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig. They told reporters Tuesday that they had lost contact with their client and could no longer represent him.
O’Mara said the family contacted him after referrals from other lawyers.
He is a well-known criminal defense attorney who is no stranger to high-profile cases and TV cameras.
In 2004, he successfully defended Shamir Suber, who was charged with second-degree murder for plowing into the back of a car and killing its driver while trying to evade police. Suber was eventually convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Zimmerman was alone Wednesday when he turned himself in to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s office in Jacksonville, said department spokeswoman Joyce Dawley.
O’Mara said Thursday he spoke to Zimmerman by telephone several times during the day Wednesday and spent about an hour with his client Wednesday night.
“He is stressed. He’s tired. He’s been through a lot with the way this case has been handled to date,” he said of Zimmerman.
“I’m just hoping that his mental health stays well and we can move forward with getting the case figured out.”
George Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., told CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight” that the family was “devastated” by the development.
“There were no winners in this already,” the brother said.
Zimmerman had been in hiding since shortly after the shooting. His family and former attorneys said he feared for his life.
The case has drawn comments from President Barack Obama — a father of two girls, who said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” — and led to protest marches in cities and campuses across the country.
At one point, the New Black Panther Party offered a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman’s capture, despite vehement opposition from, among others, Martin’s family. He stopped reporting to work at a mortgage risk management firm after the shooting.
“There’s a lot of issues and there’s a lot of emotions and we need to calm this down,” O’Mara said. “It needs to be tried in a courtroom, which is the only place it’s supposed to be tried, and that’s what I’m going to try help get done.”
Officials urge restraint
O’Mara asked there be no rush to judgment.
“Nobody, after all, wanted Trayvon Martin to be pre-judged as he was walking down that street,” he said. “I ask you not to pre-judge George Zimmerman, and please do not pre-judge the criminal justice system. It’s going to work. We just need to let it work.”
O’Mara told CNN and sister network HLN on Thursday he expects it will take at least six months, and possibly as long as a year, before the trial is held. But, he said, that’s speculation, since he hasn’t had an opportunity to review evidence in the case yet.
Gov. Rick Scott, who appointed the special prosecutor on the case, issued a statement Wednesday calling on Florida’s residents to “allow our justice system to reach an appropriate conclusion in this case.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Eric Holder pledged Wednesday that the Justice Department, which is running a concurrent investigation launched three weeks ago, will “conduct a thorough and independent review of the evidence.”
“I know that many of you are greatly — and rightly — concerned” about Martin’s death, Holder said — “a young man whose future has been lost to the ages.”
Zahra Umansky, an attorney who represented Zimmerman on 2005 charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest after an incident in a local bar — charges which were later dismissed — recalled he was actively involved in his defense, more so than other youths at that age might be. “He was very concerned,” she said.
She characterized Zimmerman as having a tendency to not accept what he’s told at face value. “He wants to take things and find out what’s going on. … He’s curious,” she said.
At a barber shop in west Sanford, an area that has served as a gathering point for Martin protesters, Demetrius Hastings watched a live broadcast of Corey’s announcement of the charge against Zimmerman.
“It’s good to see they are doing what they finally did. I don’t know who is to blame,” Hasting told CNN. “But this shouldn’t happen again.”
CNN’s Martin Savidge and Vivian Kuo, and InSession’s Beth Karas, Jessica Thill and Aletse Mellado contributed to this report.