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April 11, 2012

Zimmerman charged with second-degree murder in Florida shooting of Trayvon Martin

Via this breaking USA Today news report about the latest developments in the high-profile Zimmerman-Martin, it appear that George Zimmerman is to be charged with second-degree murder and is already in custody:

The shooter in the Trayvon Martin case will be charged with second-degree murder and is in custody, the Associated Press reports a law enforcement official says. The news organization reports that 28-year-old George Zimmerman is custody, but will not say where.

The special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin shooting case said Wednesday that she will release "new information" today at 6 p.m. ET. Several news outlets, including the Associated Press, are reporting that Florida State Attorney Angela Corey will file criminal charges against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Latina, told police he shot Trayvon in self-defense after following the unarmed black teen in a gated Sanford community Feb. 26. The decision on charges in this case is a particularly brutal and difficult choice, legal and forensic analysts say. Zimmerman's claim of self-defense, Florida's stand your ground law, questions about racial profiling, intense public attention and nationwide rallies calling for Zimmerman's arrest have combined to make the case a complicated stew, the analysts say.

Though I am not an expert on Florida's homicide laws, I would guess that second-degree murder is the harshest charge that was reasonably available to the special prosecutor.  And here is what a quick google search turned up about the potential sentencing realities if Zimmerman is ultimately convicted on this charge:

The crime of Second Degree Murder is classified as a First Degree Felony and is assigned a Level 10 offense severity ranking under Florida's Criminal Punishment Code. If convicted of Second Degree Murder, a judge is required to impose a minimum prison sentence of 16+ years in prison up to a maximum of life in prison.

Now the big question in this case turns from whether Zimmerman will be charged to whether he will be convicted and/or whether a plea deal may be sought or suggested by either the prosecutors or the defense.  Interesting times.

Prior posts on this case:

April 11, 2012 at 06:11 PM | Permalink

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Comments

I can't help put wonder if all the publicity in this case doesn't make him more likely to plead. If he is tried and convicted it seems to me that the public pressure would be strong for a life sentence rather than a relative short 16 years. I could see a plea down to voluntary manslaughter. Taking a gamble on freedom or life in a cell is a BIG gamble.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 11, 2012 7:06:45 PM

Not to drive traffic away from this blog, but The Volokh Conspiracy has a lengthy summary of Florida self-defense statute that might be interesting to readers that cannot get enough of the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman media circus.

http://volokh.com/2012/03/27/floridas-self-defense-laws/

Posted by: JT | Apr 11, 2012 7:09:06 PM

My limited understanding of second degree murder is that the prosecution has to build an iron clad narrative that Zimmerman was acting with a "depraved mind and without regard for human life." As far as I know, Zimmerman is the only witness to the event or his state of mind prior to and during the event, so I am clueless as to how the prosecution will convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Were there other witnesses prior to or during the event?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Apr 11, 2012 10:08:30 PM

One has to suspect,

1) the charges are pretexual or politically motivated scapegoating, meant to reverse the legislative intent of the "stand your ground" law, because there is no more valuable commodity to the lawyer than a living, active criminal;

2) meant to deter self-help, and citizen responses to crime, instead of passive dependence on government workers (worthless), with citizen self-help being the factor that unifies all nations with low crime rates, from poor to rich;

3) a witch hunt by a pro-criminal, rent seeking lawyer going after the productive male.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 12, 2012 6:49:38 AM

The lawyer caused culture of dependency on government workers to stop crime is very costly. It was a major factor in 9/11. That factor was covered up by the lawyer dominated 9/11 Commission. 9/11 could not have happened on airlines from Israel, Japan, or Egypt, countries with low crime rates and high likelihood of direct citizen physical attacks on criminals at the scene.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Apr 12, 2012 7:05:21 AM

The prosecutor's unveiling of charges was truly inspiring...at first: Authentic frontier gibberish about prosecutors as truth-seeking "ministers of justice" intent on being scrupulously devoted to the interests of the victim's family and the defendant alike.

But then she stealthily (almost imperceptibly) whipped out the standard playbook. Mr. Zimmerman, as it turns out, must either take a plea deal to avoid a potential life sentence on a charge the state can't possibly prove -- or trust a jury not to convict him anyway.

Still, I'll bet most viewers left her press conference feeling warm and fuzzy about the justice system and that really swell bunch of guys land gals...the prosecutors.

Posted by: John K | Apr 12, 2012 9:28:27 AM

Good grief, John K, he killed someone. We don't know all the circumstances, but no normal person thinks he is so clearly without blame that no charges are warranted.

Are you really saying that no homicide case should be brought where someone gets gunned down in the street for no very clear reason?

Even your usual defense allies won't go with you there.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 12, 2012 12:17:08 PM

One of the more interesting debates here was about "The Prisoners’ (Plea Bargain) Dilemma"

Posted by: Anon | Apr 12, 2012 12:54:40 PM

Ultimately, if there is some "gibberish" here, it is that the jury will be the "truth tellers" here and this honoring of juries has deep roots in this country, including in places far from the frontier.

There is a long road ahead here, including (another "truth teller") a judge ruling on his assumed "stand your ground" defense, before that "potential life sentence" will come. I can't see him getting that sentence myself even if he convicted of second degree murder ... if pressed, I think a lesser sentence is more likely, even if this goes to the jury. The same population who passed this law is where the jury will come from and it's quite possible at least a few jurors will have enough doubt to question the greatest charge.

Shall see.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 12, 2012 1:02:30 PM

My understanding is that stand your ground is utterly irrelevant in this case. Zimmerman claims self defense.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Apr 12, 2012 1:07:50 PM

@Jardinero1

To my mind self defense is a non-starter. One is not allowed to back a rattlesnake into a corner and then when it strikes at one to kill it and claim self-defense. As soon as he started following the boy Zimmerman became the aggressor and he remained the aggressor until it was clear and obvious that such aggression had ceased.

He stalked the boy. When the hunter becomes the hunted claiming self-defense is absurd.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 12, 2012 2:03:03 PM

Daniel, It's not an illegal act to follow somebody on a public street or common area. Stalking is defined more strictly than what occurred and may or may not be illegal in any case. My understanding of the narrative, at least as reported in the media, is that the first illegal act was when Martin punched Zimmerman.

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Apr 12, 2012 2:49:32 PM

horse pucky jardinero1

first he was NOT acting as a neighbrohood watch person. Hard to claim that when he was VIOLATING every rule they have!
next! When he called it in. He was told police were responding and after telling the 911 operator a REAL AGENT of law enforcment he was informed they did NOT NEED him to do that...that IN FACT they had dispatched a REAL COP to see what was going on. ONCE he failed to follow those rules and INSTRUCTIONS...he lost any cover from the.....STAND YOUR GROUND! LAW

sorry you cant' FOLLOW someone and then claim YOU WERE STANDING YOUR GROUND when CONFRONTED! which is WHAT it was written for!


that fails to pass the bullshit test!

as far as the supposed punch from martin...sorry HE is covered under the STAND YOUR GROUND LAW. some redneck twit followed you in a vehicle and your on foot then jumps out with a GUN....you have every right to fear for your life! and every legal right to throw a punch of whatever else you might have handy!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 12, 2012 4:29:47 PM

"We don't know all the circumstances, but no normal person thinks he is so clearly without blame that no charges are warranted."

I thought the job of the prosecutor is to determine not just whether, after looking into the facts and circumstances known to the police, there is more than a substantial likelihood of a jury verdict against the defendant. When you were a prosecutor, was your standard for pursuing a charge "clearly without blame"?

Here, I think it's obvious that the prosecutor feared the Grand Jury returning a No True Bill, so she decided to forego that little inconvenience. Thank God (or, more precisely, the founders who insisted on a Bill of Rights) that we still have the right trial by the petit jury.

I hope we find out whether there's proof of criminality here or not.

Posted by: Mark Pickrell | Apr 12, 2012 4:29:54 PM

Please forgive the typing errors in my prior posts. My last edits were not incorporated, for some reason.

Posted by: Mark Pickrell | Apr 12, 2012 4:33:27 PM

Bill, of course Zimmerman should have been charged with something. Two guys entered a secluded spot and only the one with a gun came out. The feds might be on to something with their hate-crime investigation. Maybe voluntary manslaughter is appropriate. It's the third element of second-degree murder (depraved disregard for human life) that makes the charge here look more like an SOP strong-arm tactic than a fair assessment of what most likely happened.

Joe, honoring juries isn't as easy as it was in the days before innocence projects started putting up substantial numbers of exonerated death row inmates. Beyond that, it's largely a matter of point of view. Ask me if, as an upright citizen, I honor juries and the answer is sure. But tell me my fate depends on 12 strangers weighing my word against a crew of stern, deified authority figures arrayed against me and I'm terrified...just as I'm supposed to be in a system that no longer has the time or inclination to indulge trial rights for the remarkably large numbers of citizens it accuses of crimes.

Posted by: John K | Apr 12, 2012 5:51:33 PM

Mark Pickrell --

"Here, I think it's obvious that the prosecutor feared the Grand Jury returning a No True Bill, so she decided to forego that little inconvenience. Thank God (or, more precisely, the founders who insisted on a Bill of Rights) that we still have the right trial by the petit jury."

What I'm told far more frequently here is that the prosecutor has total control of the grand jury, which -- as I am also told all the time -- would indict a ham sandwich at his bidding. Now it's the polar opposite: it's "obvious" the prosecutor "feared" a no bill.

It's not obvious to me. Of course you might have sources I don't.

To the extent your comment suggests that the truth has very much yet to be determined, I agree. To the extent it suggests that there is rancid politics -- specifically racial politics -- sniffing around this prosecution, I agree with that too. I simply do not have the facts to decide whether Zimmerman is or is not guilty of second degree murder as defined by Florida law.

As to your question: My standard for seeking an indictment was the existence of facts sufficient to establish a fair reason to believe that the defendant committed an offense, together with an objectively reasonable basis to believe there was adequate admissible evidence of those facts to convince a jury that guilt had been shown BRD.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 12, 2012 6:14:53 PM

John K, first, it is a matter of addressing what "gibberish" we are allegedly talking about. On that front, ultimately, I think it is the jury. I don't think your "frontier" prosecutor stuff there holds up, especially when allegedly an innocent person was killed here. Zimmerman isn't getting the death penalty and is not going on death row. Only one person is dead here.

How does one determine what happened there? Rely on the say-so of the accused? Media? I think open court is the best option. Juries, particularly when they are voters in the state that passed a "stand your ground law," repeatedly have been shown to rule against "stern, deified authority."

I don't know why this is such a clear case of strong arm tactics just because the jury (per a judge okaying it) has the OPTION to "depraved disregard for human life" ... how do we know this did not occur? I don't know what that term even means legally in Florida. It is surely not patently absurd or anything that he had a depraved disregard for life when he killed someone as he did.

How do you know otherwise? Have you examined the evidence? Isn't that best left to the court system, with judges, prosecutors and juries, open to all?

Posted by: Joe | Apr 12, 2012 6:26:23 PM

rodsmith,

He is claiming self defense. As to your other assertions, I would note, again, that you can follow strangers around, even if you are not on the neighborhood watch. You can even speak to strangers after following them around, even if you are not on the neighborhood watch. I doubt you have any legal duty to obey 911 operators who are not at the scene and don't know all the pertinent facts, but I would be curious to know if it is a crime to disregard the instructions of 911 operators in any state or locality. Does anyone know?

Posted by: Jardinero1 | Apr 12, 2012 6:43:49 PM

@Jardinero1

What you say is true in the abstract but context matters. There is a huge difference between surreptitiously following the cute young thing around the mall to get a better look at her ass and following someone around at night with a loaded gun. If you can't understand the difference between those two contexts then there is nothing more I have to say to you because you can't tell the difference between night and day.

In my mind, what he did rose to the level of stalking based upon what we know from the press. That's the way I would have understood it if I had been that young man. In fact, I have been that young man only I wasn't stalked by a person but by a mountain lion in the middle of the wilderness. Did that mountain lion have the right to follow me? Oh yes he did. But my own animal instincts told me the difference between being followed and being stalked.

A person just doesn't have the right to create an objectively hostile situation and then benefit from that. It's the same principle behind a hostile work environment or constructive discharge.

Posted by: Daniel | Apr 12, 2012 8:27:32 PM

Some interesting links.

Stand Your Ground and Self Defense (Talk Left)

Zimmerman Arrest Affidavit Says Word Used Was "Punks" (TalkLeft)

Second-degree murder charge may be strategy, experts say (StarTribune)

Posted by: George | Apr 12, 2012 11:25:28 PM

There is no evidence that "Martin threw a punch"

There is evidence, and it has been confirmed by Trayvon's phone records and that of his girlfriend that he was talking on the phone to her just one or two minutes before he was killed. According to this young lady, he said someone was following him and he was afraid. She told him to run. He said he hadn't done anything wrong and he would just walk fast. At one point he thought he had lost him, but then he appeared again. The last words she heard Trayvon say before his phone went dead was "Why are you following me?"

Secondly, according to some persons who listened to the 911 tape, when the operator asked him if he was following Trayvon and he said yes, he was told "You don't need to do that, we are sending someone." Then, although the tape seemed to have been manipulated somewhat because the sound was crisp except for that one phrase, many people have listened and seemed to have heard him say "f**king coon." I'm sure they will have an audio expert decipher that and find out what he said. Some of his defenders have said he only said "f**king punk". Either expression would have signified some malice in my opinion. His next statement "they always get away" was clear & crisp, & seemed to signify that he was following him in spite of the request not to. His heavy breathing at the point seemed to signify that he was either running or walking awfully fast.

We only have George Zimmerman's word that Trayvon hit him. According to the police report, Zimmerman's gun was in his waistband and was visible. He weighed about 248 pounds. So if you're in a gated neighborhood and a 248 pound white man with a gun comes at you, you have a choice - to stand there and get killed or to fight for your life. I don't believe Trayvon was ever given that choice.

His screams seemed to indicate that he was terrified. Perhaps Zimmerman did pull the gun on him. Perhaps Trayvon did try to take the gun. Perhaps he was screaming for help because he knew this man intended to kill him. His father said that when the police showed him a picture of Trayvon, dead - he had a tear on his cheek, saliva coming out of his mouth - that sounds like someone who was literally scared to death.

Zimmerman said his nose was broken - but it is impossible for someone to have a broken nose and hold his head down like he was in the video. He would be screaming in pain. Ask any doctor. Also, there would have been blood at least on his shirt. Have you ever seen a boxing match where someone is hit in the nose. There's blood everywhere. They claim an enhanced view of the video shows an abrasion at the back of his head. Did a medical examiner determine if it was a new scar or something that had been there for years? For someone who was knocked down and fighting for his life, his clothes were remarkably unwrinkled.

Finally, we are told that if someone tells one lie, we can assume he's lying about other things. Zimmerman said he was screaming. Two audio experts said no way was that Zimmerman. Who else could it have been? Trayvon's mother knows her son's voice and she identified it. And, the screams stopped with the gunshots.

If Trayvon Martin had been following Zimmerman, and Trayvon had the gun and Zimmerman had the skittles, and if Trayvon had shot and killed Zimmerman, would those of you who are so anxious to see Zimmerman exonerated also be champions for Trayvon if the tables were turned? Just curious.

Posted by: saintswriter | Apr 13, 2012 1:17:26 AM

actaly your wrong here!

"rodsmith,

He is claiming self defense."

I'm not talking about his claims! but the police's refusal to arrest him on the spot like they would anyone else. Sorry the stand your ground law does not apply in this case in any way what so ever...ecept maybe for the dead man! who unfortunatley bought a pack of skiddles to a gunfight!


"As to your other assertions, I would note, again, that you can follow strangers around, even if you are not on the neighborhood watch. You can even speak to strangers after following them around, even if you are not on the neighborhood watch."

There is a big big difference in following someone down the street and maybe approaching them to ask directions or whatver

But here we have a twit acting as an SELF APPOINTED law man! in violation of every rule the organization he claims to represent requries. Then compounds it with failure to follow law enforcment instructins. You and the rest of the lawyers can talk all you want. Let someone hurt a 911 operation and i can almost guarnatee the charge the ARREST you for will be Assault on a LEO!

Then we come to the kicker. He runs up on a person on foot jumps out with his six gun showing at his waist! and thinks nobody is gonna thing he's a THREAT!

Sorry again it doesnt' past the smell test and i LIVE IN FLORIDA! this guy is TOAST if it get's anywhere near a jury!

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 13, 2012 2:28:34 AM

Bill,

Thanks for your response. When you were making a charging decision, how did you assess affirmative defenses, such as self-defense?

Many thank.

Mark Pickrell

P.S. Thanks to saintswriter for the info. It will be interesting to see the evidence that comes out, if there's a hearing on self-defense or a trial.

Posted by: Mark Pickrell | Apr 13, 2012 10:15:22 AM

unfortunately mark there will be a mini trial to decide if the stand your ground law applies. If that judge says yes then nothing else can happen. There's a recent court ruling to that effect here in florida. just dont' have the link handy.

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 13, 2012 2:21:46 PM

Mark --

Only seldom was I called in to help make a charging decision, because I mostly worked at the back end of the system (appeals).

If I thought there was quite a convincing case for an affirmative defense (e.g., that the prospective defendant was obviously out of his mind), I would recommend against bringing the prosecution, since it would be, among other things, a waste of taxpayer dollars. But if the affirmative defense looked merely plausible, I would recommend going forward, and let the jury decide. Without knowing more than I do, that's pretty much how I see the Trayvon Martin prosecution.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Apr 14, 2012 9:42:29 AM

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