Shooter charged with murder of US black teen

AFP , Thursday 12 Apr 2012

American George Zimmerman faces charge of second-degree murder for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February

US prosecutors have charged a neighborhood watchman with murdering an unarmed black teenager, a killing that sparked a tense nationwide discussion of race and criminal justice.

Florida state attorney Angela Corey told a press conference on Wednesday that George Zimmerman, 28, who claims to have killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in self-defense, has been charged with second-degree murder.

"I can tell you, we did not come to this decision lightly," she added after a weeks-long investigation into the February 26 shooting, adding that Zimmerman -- who is Hispanic -- was in custody in Florida.

Zimmerman stands accused of fatally shooting Martin inside a gated community in the central town of Sanford, as the teen -- wearing a hooded sweatshirt on a rainy night -- was heading home after buying candy at a convenience store.

Zimmerman described the teen as "real suspicious" in an emergency call before the shooting, according to police transcripts. Martin's family and supporters say the teenager may have been the victim of racial profiling.

Zimmerman has made no public comment, but his family and supporters say Martin attacked first, breaking Zimmerman's nose before knocking him to the ground and repeatedly slamming his head against the sidewalk.

They insist Zimmerman's life was in danger and he fired in self-defense.

A controversial Florida statute, known as the stand-your-ground law, allows the use of deadly force when a person has a reasonable fear of death or serious injury, even if he or she could conceivably retreat.

A bond hearing has been scheduled for Thursday, Zimmerman's new defense attorney Mark O'Mara told CNN, adding that his client would plead not guilty.

Authorities booked Zimmerman into jail at the Polk Correctional Facility at 8:30 pm Wednesday (0030 GMT Thursday).

The case has touched a raw nerve in the US public regarding race and violence, dominating cable news and sparking large protests. O'Mara said his client was "concerned about getting a fair trial."

"There has been a lot of information flowing. I think a lot of it has been premature and maybe inappropriate. I don't think a case like this should be tried here," O'Mara told reporters in Orlando, Florida.

Zimmerman "is troubled that the state decided to charge him," O'Mara said. "I think anyone charged with second-degree murder would be scared."

Corey, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, acknowledged the pressure that her department had been under, but said "we do not prosecute by public pressure or petition."

"We prosecute based on the facts of any given case as well as the laws of the state of Florida," she said.

Second degree murder is defined as a killing that is not premeditated. A conviction carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, according to US media.

"We simply wanted an arrest -- nothing more, nothing less -- and we got it, and I say thank you," the teen's mother Sybrina Fulton said in a Washington press conference after the charges were announced.

"I just want to speak from my heart to your heart, because a heart has no color. It is not black, it is not white, it's red. I want to say thank you from my heart to your heart," she said, breaking down in tears.

The teen's father, Tracy Martin, thanked supporters for their compassion.

"This is just the beginning," Martin said. "We will march and march and march until the right thing is done."

In a statement, Fulton thanked "the millions of people around the world" who signed a petition calling for justice in the case that gathered more than 2.5 million signatures.

Zimmerman's brother Robert said in an interview with CNN that "the only silver lining in all this is that my brother is safe."

"They have thrown the book at him," Robert said. "We're disappointed, as you would expect any family to be disappointed."

"Our brother literally had to save his life by taking a life, and that's no situation that anybody wants to ever be in ever." He later added: "You don't call the police in order to go commit murder."

Federal investigators are also continuing to probe the case.

"If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action," US Attorney General Eric Holder said earlier at the annual convention of the National Action Network, a leading rights group.

Holder said senior Justice Department officials had traveled to Sanford to meet with the Martin family and local residents and authorities.

The high-profile case sparked unusually personal remarks last month from US President Barack Obama.

"If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," Obama said, pleading for national "soul searching" over what he called a "tragedy."

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