Florida authorities filed a charge of
second-degree murder Wednesday against the neighbourhood watch
volunteer who killed an unarmed black teenager in a racially charged
case that provoked nationwide protests.
George Zimmerman, 28, fired a single shot that killed Trayvon Martin, 17, on February 26 in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, Florida. Zimmerman told police that he fired his 9mm handgun in self-defence.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey said that Zimmerman had already surrendered to authorities on a warrant for his arrest.
Zimmerman, who is part Latino, had reported a suspicious person to local police and followed Martin, who was walking through a residential neighbourhood to visit his father. Zimmerman left his car to continue the pursuit, and told police that he was returning to the vehicle when Martin attacked him.
Martin had been speaking by mobile telephone to a girl, who said that he had expressed fear about a man who was following him and that she had heard a man confronting Martin.
Telephone calls to police and other evidence have left doubts about how the apparent physical struggle between Zimmerman and Martin began.
After local police and prosecutors failed for weeks to arrest or indict Zimmerman, Martin's family and their supporters began holding rallies to demand action, drawing international attention starting last month.
Martin was wearing a hooded sweatshirt, and minutes before the incident had bought a bag of Skittles candy. The "hoodie" and candy became potent symbols for demonstrators across the country demanding prosecution in the case, which has raised questions about racial profiling, prejudice in policing and laws that widen the legal definitions of self-defence.
Corey said that the charge was filed based only on the evidence and Florida law.
"We do not prosecute by public pressure or petition," she told a press conference in Jacksonville, Florida.
She said that she spoke with Martin's parents immediately before announcing the charge.
Zimmerman, a local resident known for patrolling the neighbourhood and frequently reporting suspicious activity to police, was licensed to carry a concealed weapon in Florida, which has relatively lax gun controls.
If convicted of second-degree murder, which is unplanned and unpremeditated, Zimmerman could face a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.
Sanford police said an initial investigation did not find enough evidence to arrest Zimmerman, and they referred the case to the local prosecutor. The Sanford police chief later stepped down, and Florida state authorities appointed Corey as a special prosecutor to handle the investigation.
FBI investigators have opened a parallel probe into the case for possible violations of federal civil rights laws.
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