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2012-04-12

45 Days After Killing Trayvon Martin & Sparking National Outcry, George Zimmerman Finally Charged

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Forty-five days after George Zimmerman shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, he has been charged with second-degree murder. Special Prosecutor Angela Corey says the charges are based on the merits of the case and were not influenced by the several weeks of nationwide protests and a massive social media campaign. We speak with NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, who disagrees. "The reality is that [Corey] would not be the prosecutor but for [Trayvon’s] family standing up, and millions of people with them, and saying, 'We need justice in this case.'" We’re also joined by attorney Jasmine Rand, head of the civil rights division at Parks & Crump Law Firm, which is representing Martin’s family. "I think that the federal government needs to look very closely at all of the facts and investigate whether or not there was a hate crime," Rand says. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Forty-five days after he shot and killed unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman has been charged with second-degree murder. Zimmerman spent last night in the Polk County jail in Sanford, Florida, after turning himself in to state police. Special Prosecutor Angela Corey announced the charge Wednesday evening.

ANGELA COREY: Today we filed an information charging George Zimmerman with murder in the second degree. A capias has been issued for his arrest. With the filing of that information and the issuance of the capias, he will have a right to appear in front of a magistrate in Seminole County within 24 hours of his arrest, and thus formal prosecution will begin.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Corey declined to discuss how her team arrived at the charges or to disclose other details of her investigation, saying, quote, "That’s why we try cases in court." Earlier this week, she ruled out using a grand jury in the case, meaning Zimmerman could not be charged with first-degree murder, a serious charge that would indicate the crime was premeditated and would require the convening of a grand jury in Florida.

At Wednesday’s press conference, one reporter asked Corey if she believed Zimmerman should have been arrested on the night of the shooting. Here’s how she responded.

ANGELA COREY: We have numerous homicides where immediate arrests are not made. And so, to us, it did not seem unusual. I think judgment has to be made when the final decision is reached, and that’s what we would have hoped the public would have waited for. But some people did not wait. And so, an arrest can only be based upon probable cause. And so, we believe that that’s what the Sanford Police Department was trying to do. And if there is any sort of determination as to what they did or didn’t do, that will be handled by someone other than our prosecution team.

AMY GOODMAN: Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told the public she’s grateful Zimmerman will have his day in court.

SYBRINA FULTON: We wanted nothing more, nothing less. We just wanted an arrest, and we got it. And I say thank you. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, Jesus.

AMY GOODMAN: The charges were announced in the wake of massive outcry and a social media campaign. Twitter has been flooded with tweets linked by the hashtag #Trayvon. And an online petition at Change.org demanding Zimmerman’s prosecution has received more than 2.2 million signatures, one of the largest petitions in the site’s history. Supporters of Trayvon Martin have also held marches, protests and rallies across the country, prompting the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI to launch probes into the case. The case even gained the attention of President Obama, who called for a thorough investigation.

Several prominent civil rights leaders, members of Congress, and celebrities had also called for Zimmerman’s arrest. The Reverend Al Sharpton warned Tayvon’s hometown was on the verge of becoming known as the Birmingham or Selma of the 21st century. Wednesday, Sharpton said the case of Trayvon Martin reflected the "double standard" of the legal system.

REV. AL SHARPTON: This case is a case, to us, that represents far too often what happens in our communities, where there is a double standard. We are not seeking to convict anybody; we are seeking to stop them from acquitting someone without a trial. We are not trying to rush to judgment; we are trying to stop the rush to judgment that Mr. Zimmerman apparently made on the night of February 26. Let us remember—and a lot of the media in many ways distort this—Trayvon Martin committed no crime. He had no weapon. And he had every legal right to be where he was. The rush to judgment was those that moved against him, said he was suspicious, and took his life.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the civil rights leader, Reverend Al Sharpton.

Meanwhile, George Zimmerman has retained a new lawyer, veteran Central Florida attorney Mark O’Mara. On Tuesday, Zimmerman’s previous attorney, Craig Sonner, withdrew from the case, saying he had been unable to reach his client.

Well, for more, we go to Tallahassee, Florida, where we’re joined by attorney Jasmine Rand, head of the civil rights division at Parks & Crump Law Firm, which is representing Trayvon Martin’s family.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, Jasmine. Respond to the decision by the special prosecutor in this case, Angela Corey, to charge George Zimmerman with second-degree murder.

JASMINE RAND: The family is pleased with Angela Corey’s decision. We are happy that she viewed the evidence in a fair and impartial manner and came to the decision that we feel like should have been come to a long time ago and decided to charge George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We are thankful that she made the decision that the chief of police could have made, that the former prosecutor could have made. And we are glad that the special prosecutor, you know, reviewed the evidence and decided to charge George Zimmerman with murder.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Jasmine Rand, the decision to charge him with second-degree murder instead of manslaughter obviously would require a higher standard for the jury to decide, on a second-degree murder case. Could you explain the differences in the law in Florida on those two counts?

JASMINE RAND: Actually, practice in the civil arena and the criminal arena is quite different. But, in general, a manslaughter charge is less voluntary. With second-degree murder, it’s a—basically a depraved mind and disregard for human life.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that the special prosecutor was even brought into this case; that the state attorney, Norm Wolfinger, he recused himself; the Sanford police chief, he has stepped aside, though said he is coming back—what does this say about what took place on February 26, in terms of the investigation into George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon?

JASMINE RAND: And I will say that we don’t know the full details of everything that has happened yet, but, to me, that indicates that there was a substantial amount of impropriety, whatever that impropriety was, that occurred that made, you know—that removed a chief of police, that had one state prosecutor step down, and had a special prosecutor appointed. That’s obviously not a common situation. So, to me, it indicates that there was a substantial amount of impropriety that happened in Sanford.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined by Ben Jealous, the CEO and president of the NAACP. He’s in Hartford, Connecticut, because the legislature just overturned the death penalty, and we’re going to talk about that in a moment. But, Ben, you were in Florida not very long ago, a part of the rallies that were taking place. I found it very instructive that Angela Corey was clear—and maybe we can play this clip, we played it in headlines—when she talked about public outcry having nothing to do with Zimmerman’s arrest. Let’s take a listen.

ANGELA COREY: I can tell you we did not come to this decision lightly. This case is like a lot of the difficult cases we have handled for years here in our circuit. And we made this decision in the same manner. Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition. We prosecute based on the facts of any given case, as well as the laws of the state of Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Angela Corey. So she’s saying it is not protest, but her decision itself was made on the merits of the case. But can you talk, Ben Jealous, about what got it into her hands? She is a special prosecutor appointed by the Florida governor.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Well, that’s, you know, right. The reality is that she would not be the prosecutor but for this family standing up, and millions of people with them, and saying, "We need justice in this case." We got charges here because a chief was forced aside and a prosecutor was forced to step aside, so that we could have a force led by somebody who would be impartial and this case prosecuted by somebody who would be impartial. This is a very unique situation, where we have had to wait weeks for justice and had to literally see a movement created in order to get this in the hands of a prosecutor who would do what the cops should have done on day one, lock this man up, charge him with murder, and get us headed towards a trial.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Ben Jealous, the decision now, though some of the analysis so far, since it was announced, indicates that now a judge will—has the potential at a hearing to even throw the case out of court before it even goes to trial—your sense of how the judicial system will be functioning, given this enormous public outcry that has occurred around the country?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, some have said, you know, this is a moment to be relieved—he has been charged—but not to relax. The reality is that, you know, what you see in Central Florida—I spent a week there on the ground listening to residents—is that there are serious concerns about how things operate at every level. That’s why it was so important to get the chief removed. That’s why it was so important to get a new prosecutor in there. And that’s why it’s so important that this gets before a good judge, because the reality is that we’ve seen cases involving the deaths of young black men in Central Florida mishandled at every single level—by the cops in the past, by the prosecutors in the past, by the judges in the past. And so, yes, this is a moment, you know, of relief. It’s a moment to be pleased that the wheels are finally turning. But it’s also a moment to stay vigilant, because the reality is that, you know, there are more hurdles for this case.

AMY GOODMAN: At yesterday’s news conference, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey insisted the justice system is race blind.

ANGELA COREY: Those of us in law enforcement are committed to justice for every race, every gender, every person, of any persuasion whatsoever. They are our victims. We only know one category as prosecutors, and that’s a V. It’s not a B, it’s not a W, it’s not an H. It’s V, for "victim." That’s who we work tirelessly for.

AMY GOODMAN: Jasmine Rand, your response?

JASMINE RAND: Theoretically, justice should be blind. But I think that we’ve just seen in Sanford that justice is in fact not blind. Justice is only as blind as those that are delivering it.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play another clip from Eric Holder, the U.S. attorney general, who said Wednesday there is a high bar to bring federal civil rights charges in the killing of black teen Trayvon Martin. He said federal officials are still investigating the case.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: The primary responsibility we have in the Justice Department is to support the state in its ongoing investigation, to do our own thorough and parallel investigation, which we are in the process of doing, and try to resolve this matter in as fair and complete a way and as quickly as we can. And we’re doing that, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Attorney Jasmine Rand is head of the civil rights division of the law firm that is representing Trayvon Martin’s family. What role should the federal government play in this investigation, Jasmine?

JASMINE RAND: I think that the federal government needs to look very closely at all of the facts and investigate whether or not there was a hate crime. Regardless of the outcome, I think that it still needs to be looked at, especially in light of the 911 calls when we hear George Zimmerman saying, "These A-holes always get away." You know, there’s some other questionable language throughout the tapes that I would like the federal government and Eric Holder to very closely scrutinize to see whether or not this case is right for a hate crime.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s put that question to Ben Jealous, as well, the issue of whether the law is color blind. And what does it mean to also have a federal investigation right now into the killing of Trayvon Martin?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: You know, it should be. And we hope that Ms. Corey is—she has a reputation for being a tough prosecutor, and we pray that she will prosecute this case to the best of her ability. The reality is that the story in Sanford, the story in Central Florida, indeed the story in this country—Sanford could just—Sanford, Florida, is also Sanford, U.S.A.—you know, is that justice is still—our justice system is still infected by race. If we want to stop the next one of these cases—and these "Stand Your Ground" laws are important, but what is critical is that we end racial profiling in this country and that we get to a place where the cops take the killings of young black men and black boys and black men of all ages as seriously as they do for anybody else. I mean, the reality is that he was killed, what, 70 feet from his father’s girlfriend’s house, and the cops didn’t knock on any doors. He had a cellphone with him, where he had been talking to somebody up to minutes before he was killed. They didn’t call that person back. He sat as a John Doe for three days.

And the reality is that this happens in Sanford, and it happens in many other places. I sat in a church and listened to story after story of mothers and aunts and grandmothers talking about their deep and sharp pain at their young men being killed by bad cops, by thugs—didn’t matter—and the cops just not taking it seriously, and then many stories from—primarily from black men about being systematically humiliated by the cops, a very broad pain of racial profiling. But right now we’ve got to get a conviction in this case. The day after, you know, we will be right there with DOJ. We’ll be right there with the state’s attorney, saying we’ve got to go further. Now that—you know, once Zimmerman is convicted, we’ve got to push further and actually fix justice in Sanford, in Florida and in this country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Ben Jealous, you’re raising this issue of the broader perspective, what’s happening with racial profiling. We’ve discussed here on Democracy Now! the huge number of stop-and-frisk arrests in the New York City Police Department and other departments around the country. Is your sense that, in the last year or two, there has been an upsurge of these kinds of cases, or it’s just that they’re only now getting more media attention, largely as a result of the Trayvon Martin case?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We have not had an honest conversation about racial profiling in this country in a decade. And the reality is that this case, for a whole generation of young people, is the first time they’re seeing their country really talk about this problem. You know, we go back 13 years ago, 1999, you know, 2000, George Bush was campaigning against "driving while black," and there was good bipartisan consensus that racial profiling needed to be dealt with. After 2001, it went into a deep freeze, and we’re now seeing our first Senate hearings next week will be on—our first Senate hearings on racial profiling in more than 10 years. We’ve got to have a conversation about this in our society.

You know, in 2003, what, there were about 160,000-170,000 stop-and-frisks in New York; 87 percent of those resulted in no summons, no one being locked up or taken to the station. Last year, 285—excuse me, 685,000 stop-and-frisks, 685, and 88 percent of them found nothing. You know, less than 10 percent of those were of white people; you know, more than 90 percent were black and Latino people. And the reality is that we’ve seen a massive upsurge in racial profiling over the last decade, largely facilitated by the silence in our nation about the systematic humiliation and targeting and mistreatment of people, by the very people, be they cops, community watch, private security, teachers, who have sworn to protect those children.

AMY GOODMAN: Later in the broadcast, we’re going to get an update on the case of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr. He would have turned 69 years old today, except that on November 19th he was killed by White Plains, New York, police when they responded to a medical emergency. Somehow he had triggered his medical alert pendant while sleeping at home at 5:00 in the morning, and the life alert company called the police, said, "No criminal case, this is a medical emergency. Can you head to the home of this man?" They ended up breaking down the door, tasering him, then shooting him dead. We’re going to speak to his lawyers, because a grand jury has just been convened, and it started hearing testimony yesterday. But before we end this segment and then break and talk about the death penalty in Connecticut being overturned, I just want to get a final comment from attorney Jasmine Rand. What is the schedule now? What do we expect to see happen? George Zimmerman is behind bars in Florida right now. He’s been charged with second-degree murder. What is the timetable?

JASMINE RAND: Well, I can’t, you know, give an exact timetable. I can kind of tell the next steps. He will have a hearing today, and, you know, the judge will determine whether or not the judge will set bail, the amount of bail that will be set. You know, we anticipate that the defense will put forth a motion to dismiss, on the Stand Your Ground law. There will certainly be a hearing, if not several hearings, on that. One side or the other may appeal the judge’s decision. And then, eventually, you know, we hope that the case will proceed to trial, and the jury will decide to convict him.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you, attorney Jasmine Rand, for joining us, head of the civil rights division at Parks & Crump Law Firm, which represents Martin’s family. Ben Jealous is going to be staying with us, head of the NAACP. Jasmine speaking to us from Tallahassee, Florida. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re back in 30 seconds.

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