ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) – The special prosecutor investigating the shooting death of unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin on Monday ruled out using a grand jury in the case, meaning her office alone will decide whether to charge shooter George Zimmerman with a crime.
The case has captured national attention because of race and Florida’s controversial self-defense laws, prompting demonstrations across the country including one on Monday that temporarily shut down the Sanford Police Department in the town where the shooting took place.
Martin, 17, was black and Zimmerman, 28, who has not been charged, is white and Hispanic.
Sanford police declined to arrest Zimmerman after the shooting, saying they found no evidence to contradict his account that he acted in self-defense. Police cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force against adversaries when they fear great bodily harm or death.
But defense lawyers with experience litigating “Stand Your Ground” cases say Zimmerman, if he is charged, faces significant challenges in order to assert immunity under that law.
Zimmerman has created a website to raise money for his legal defense and living expenses while he awaits the decision over possible charges against him.
The website, called therealgeorgezimmerman.com, offers one of the first publicly available comments from Zimmerman since he went into hiding after the shooting on February 26.
“I was involved in a life altering event which led me to become the subject of intense media coverage,” Zimmerman says on the home page.
“As a result of the incident and subsequent media coverage, I have been forced to leave my home, my school, my employer, my family and ultimately, my entire life.”
The state attorney who initially investigated the shooting, Norm Wolfinger, had said the case would go to a grand jury on April 10. The panel, a group of citizens who meet in secret to hear evidence without defense witnesses or cross-examination, would have decided whether to charge Zimmerman.
But Wolfinger, facing withering criticism, removed himself from the case on March 22. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, also under fire for his handling of the investigation, stepped aside the same day.
Florida Governor Rick Scott appointed Angela Corey, a seasoned state attorney in Jacksonville, to take over the case as special prosecutor.
“State Attorney Angela Corey has decided not to use a grand jury in the Trayvon Martin shooting death investigation,” her office said in a statement on Monday. “At this time, the investigation continues and there will be no further comment from this office.”
Corey’s decision appeared to confirm her reputation as a prosecutor who does not shy away from deciding how to handle difficult cases.
Lawyers for the Martin family and for Zimmerman called Corey’s decision unsurprising.
“We are not surprised by this announcement and, in fact, are hopeful that a decision will be reached very soon to arrest George Zimmerman and give Trayvon Martin’s family the simple justice they have been seeking all along,” Benjamin Crump, a Martin family attorney, said in a statement.
“Courageous move on her part,” one of the lawyers representing the Zimmerman family, Hal Uhrig, told CNN. He also said the decision was expected.
Unlike some states, Florida law gives prosecutors the option of allowing charges to be decided by a grand jury except in cases involving a possible death penalty.
“It’s very bold on her part,” said David Weinstein, a former Florida state and federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami. “She has no qualms about whatever decision she is going to make. She is not going to let it be passed off on somebody else.”
Relatives and supporters of Zimmerman say he was attacked by Martin and feared for his life when he fired his 9mm handgun, which he was licensed to carry.
Should Zimmerman face charges and attempt to claim immunity under “Stand Your Ground,” he would face legal challenges, experts say.
“PREPONDERANCE OF EVIDENCE”
The first hurdle would be a special evidentiary hearing in front of a judge, where Zimmerman would have the opportunity to argue he deserves immunity. But to convince the judge, Zimmerman would have to present a “preponderance of evidence” that he acted in self-defense, which under the law means he has to show he had “reasonable belief” that such force was necessary.
That is a high bar, and difficult to prove, criminal defense attorneys said.
In cases where the facts are even remotely in dispute the judge is likely to deny the “Stand Your Ground” immunity motion, said Ralph Behr, a Florida criminal defense attorney who has filed eight motions for immunity, all of which have been denied.
More typically, a judge will choose to have the case go to trial, where the defendants must take their chances with a jury, he said.
“Judges do not readily grant these (immunity) motions because they know they can pass it on to the jury,” said Carey Haughwout, the elected public defender for Palm Beach County.
Monday’s demonstration, which followed protests around the country and prominent figures demanding Zimmerman’s arrest, took place outside the Sanford Police Department.
The crowd forced police to temporarily close the station to the public, suspend some services such as fingerprinting and move routine business to the city clerk’s office.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Longstreth and Daniel Trotta in New York and David Adams and Kevin Gray in Miami; Editing by Xavier Briand and Lisa Shumaker)