No First-Degree Murder Charges in Trayvon Martin Killing

Posted April 10, 2012 in Criminal Law by Courtney Sherwood

Trayvon Martin’s killer will not be charged with first-degree murder. But George Zimmerman, who fatally shot the 17-year-old on Feb. 26, could still face manslaughter or other charges when a Florida prosecutor concludes her investigation.

That prosecutor, State Attorney Angela Corey, said Monday that she will not bring the case before the grand jury scheduled to convene today. In Florida, first-degree murder charges require a grand jury’s review and a finding that the act was premeditated.  But prosecutors need not submit less serious charges to such review, and rarely do before taking a defendant to court.

Read more about the role that grand juries play in criminal indictments.

Corey was appointed on March 22 to review the closely-watched racially charged case and determine what charges, if any, to file. She said from the beginning that she might not need a grand jury to proceed.

Whether she’ll determine that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law protects Zimmerman from any prosecution, or will charge him criminally responsible for the shooting, will depend on the evidence she uncovers, according to attorneys watching the case.

Trayvon Martin was shot to death while walking through the gated community where his father’s fiancée lives, as he returned from a trip to a convenience store. According to recordings of a 911 call that Zimmerman placed, the Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer thought the black teen was a criminal targeting property in an area that had already been struck by several burglaries.

The exact details of the confrontation between Martin and his shooter remain hazy, but Zimmerman told police he pulled the trigger in self defense. If the evidence backs that up, he’s unlikely to head to court because Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law prohibits prosecutors from charging people with murder or manslaughter if they kill someone else in certain self-defense situations.

As fragments of evidence surrounding the death of the unarmed teen have emerged, so have worries that racial profiling may have played a role in the handling of Martin’s death. A group of 50 black lawyers and civil rights activists that recently met with Florida Governor Rick Scott expressed concern that killers of black victims may be less likely to face charges under “Stand Your Ground” than people who kill whites.

Martin’s death has also revived the debate about Florida’s lax gun laws. Nearly a million people – one in 15 adults in the state – have concealed weapon permits in Florida, among them George Zimmerman. Defenders who believe his claims that he was attacked by Martin point out that his concealed gun may have protected him from further injury.

But Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor who now researches race and juvenile justice as a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said she believes evidence so far suggests that Zimmerman was the aggressor.

In 911 recordings released to the public, an emergency dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon Martin or engage with the teen. Recordings capture cries for help that some voice analysts suggest came from Martin. Though it’s not clear how the altercation began, some reports say that the teen was on the phone with a friend shortly before his death and told her he was worried because a stranger was following him home.

Zimmerman later told police that he pulled the trigger when in fear for his life because Martin was bashing his head into the ground and had hit his nose. Photos and videos taken the day of the shooting have cast doubt on this version of events. Some say, for example, that injuries would be on the back of his head, not its top, if the teen was really doing what’s been reported – though others argue that a scuffle can lead to unexpected injuries and that photos of Zimmerman may not reveal cleaned-up wounds.

Delores Jones Brown

In an interview prior to Monday’s grand-jury-related announcement, Jones-Brown said she was frustrated that Zimmerman had not been charged, and acknowledged the challenges of deciding whether to involve a grand jury.

“The racial dynamics in this case make it difficult to come to a definitive conclusion as to what a grand jury would find,” she said.

Though first-degree murder charges are now out of the picture, it’s not clear whether “Stand Your Ground” will continue to protect Zimmerman or whether he’ll ultimately face lesser charges.

“There are two ways in which ‘Stand Your Ground’ comes into play,” said
Mitch Stone
, a defense attorney with Stone Lockett in Jacksonville, Fla. “You are allowed to use deadly force to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony” – such as burglary, sexual battery or attempted murder – “and if you’re in fear of great bodily harm or death then you’re allowed to protect yourself and use deadly force.”

Mitch Stone

The decision to prosecute “is going to rise or fall on the basis of whether Zimmerman’s claims that he was being attacked are valid,” Stone said. “The forensics will assist in that. If Zimmerman had a busted nose, the question would be: How did he get it? If Zimmerman’s head was messed up, how did that happen? What did he do before that conflict started? These are all unanswered questions. Obviously he’s claiming it happened one way, and the prosecution is going to face that it’s not clear cut. If he started the conflict or the aggression was not as significant as he claims, he may not get the right to claim ‘Stand Your Ground.’”

State Attorney Corey’s announcement that she would not bring charges before a grand jury was brief and lacked details, stating simply: “At this time, the investigation continues and there will be no further comment from this office.”

Given all the scrutiny she faces, many observers expect some charges against Zimmerman – perhaps manslaughter or aggravated battery with a firearm. But under Florida law, the prosecution, judge and jury will all have to agree that “Stand Your Ground” does not protect him before Zimmerman can face charges and possible sentencing.

“My sense is that if it’s not clear cut, the prosecution is going to go forward with charges,” Stone said. “If it’s not clear cut, the judge is not going to grant immunity. And if it’s not clear cut, a jury is going to have a hard time.”

What do you think? Join the discussion below.

Tagged as: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,