JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After 45 days, one lawsuit, dozens of rallies, cries from thousands of protesters, more than 2 million petition signatures and countless media reports, the neighborhood watchman who shot Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin was criminally charged Wednesday, capping a public outcry unmatched in recent memory.
The man who went free the night he shot the 17-year-old unarmed high school junior in a gated community in Sanford now faces the possibility of life in prison.
George Zimmerman, 28, was charged with second-degree murder, a first-degree felony — a far more serious charge than the manslaughter arrest most experts were predicting. The decision to file the charge was made by special prosecutor Angela Corey, the Jacksonville-based state attorney for Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, who vowed to fight a self-defense claim and insisted that she did not bow to public pressure.
Calling Martin's parents "sweet," she referred to Trayvon for the first time in a way other law enforcement officers so far had not: as a "victim." When she first met with the boy's parents, she said, she began her meeting in prayer.
"We did not come to this decision lightly," said Corey, who was assigned the case by Florida Gov. Rick Scott less than three weeks ago. "We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition."
Zimmerman, who turned himself in, is being held without bond and is expected to appear in court Thursday in Seminole County court for a bond hearing.
"Anyone facing a second degree murder charge is scared," said Zimmerman's new attorney, Mark O'Mara. "He's concerned about getting a fair trial and a fair presentation."
The charge came a month after the police department in Sanford declined to arrest Zimmerman, saying his claim of self defense was backed up by physical evidence and witness statements. That decision by Sanford Police spawned a national movement that made a martyr of a suspended high school junior whose name is now trademarked and known around the world.
The prosecutor's decision followed weeks of nationwide protests, which were marked by student walk-outs in South Florida and throngs of marchers wearing hoodies — as Trayvon was wearing the night he died — in cities from New York to Seattle. While for some the case symbolized racial injustice — Trayvon was black; Zimmerman is a white Latino — for others it became a glaring example of the media's rush to judgment and willingness to try a case in the newsroom instead of a courtroom.
A case that galvanized nation also divided it. Gun advocates, white separatist groups and other conservative commentators supported Zimmerman's right to defend himself and criticized black activists, accusing them of sowing racial strife by claiming Martin was a victim of racial profiling.
Corey said race played no role in the decision to charge Zimmerman.
"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," she said. "That's who we work tirelessly for. And that's all we know, is justice for our victims."
But critics say the prosecutor's zeal to quell critics may have gone too far.
The murder charge is "political prostitution," said Cheney Mason, the criminal defense attorney who successfully defended last year's high profile trial of accused child-killer Casey Anthony. "Now I don't have all the facts — no one does — but you look at what we know of the case, and it looks like the prosecutor bowed to other pressures."
Former Miami U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey suggested Corey might not stick with the second-degree murder charge through trial. A jury could, under some circumstances, toss the second-degree murder charge and convict of a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, he said.
To prove Zimmerman was guilty of second-degree murder, Corey will have to show Zimmerman acted with a "depraved mind" when he shot Martin. "This is an aggressive charge," Coffey said. "And there are times when an aggressive charge gives more incentive for the defendant to seek a plea. The vast majority of cases don't go to trial and end in a plea."
Zimmerman is still being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights division. In a speech at a conference in Washington, D.C., led by Rev. Al Sharpton, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said a hate crime would be tough to prove.
Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, in Washington for that conference, said they were pleased with the charges.
"They took a look at the evidence and they decided that was the charge," Fulton said. "We're not the experts; they're the experts. So we're putting our faith in them."
Her voice shaking, she told reporters all she ever wanted was an arrest.
"I say thank you. Thank you, Lord, thank you, Jesus," she said. "I just want to speak from my heart to your heart, because a heart has no color. It's not black, it's not white, it's red."
Sharpton, who used his national television and radio audiences to help rouse the public, insisted that the charges only came after the people hit the streets.
"Had there not been pressure, there would not have been a second look" at the case, he said.
Corey declined to discuss in detail how the investigation was carried out, but her statements shed some light on how the prosecution team reached the decision on a second-degree murder charge. She said the decision was made last week, and prosecutors used the arrest warrant an investigator had sought early in the case.
Her investigators made several trips to the scene of the shooting, retrieving evidence from Sanford police and re-interviewing witnesses in the neighborhood.
"A lot of the witnesses had already made statements in public even before we took over the case," she said. "A thorough review of all of the statements was done."
Last month, Corey told The Miami Herald that her investigators would be looking at a wide range of evidence, including the gun used by Zimmerman and the clothes he was wearing the night of the shooting. She said 911 tapes - in which someone is heard screaming for help before the fatal gunshot - would be "critical" and would be analyzed.
The Sanford Police and Zimmerman's former attorneys had said that when all the evidence was made public - including unedited 911 calls - the decision to release Zimmerman after the shooting would be better understood. But Corey apparently found enough evidence to believe the state's Stand Your Ground law did not apply in this case.
"If Stand Your Ground becomes an issue, we fight it," she said.
The controversial law eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat when faced with the reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm. The controversy that exploded after the shooting has put the future of the hotly debated law in doubt.
"We have to change that law," said Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon's parents. "Think about Trayvon Martin, how this might never have happened had we not had those things in place. We never would have had to go 44 days to start simple justice."
Martin died Feb. 26 after he was returning to the home where he was staying from 7-Eleven, where he bought Skittles and iced tea. While walking back from the store to the townhouse he was visiting at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, Zimmerman, the gated community's watch captain, spotted him and found him suspicious.
There had been recent burglaries, Martin was walking slow, "looking about," and appeared to be on drugs, Zimmerman told a police operator.
Zimmerman, a married man who worked in the mortgage and insurance industries while studying at Seminole State College, had called police to report a variety of crimes 46 times in eight years. In the past year, he had reported black men looking "suspicious" on four previous occasions.
The watch captain's four-minute call that night would be played hundreds of times on national media and scrutinized to its finest detail on social networking sites. In it, Zimmerman was heard huffing and puffing as he got out of his truck to tail Martin and figure out where he went, because the teen had taken off running.
The police operator told Zimmerman he did not need to follow him, and Zimmerman muttered profanities lamenting how the bad guys "always get away."
Zimmerman later told police that, after the operator told him not to follow Martin, he headed back to his truck and that's when the teenager came up from behind him. The two exchanged words and Martin punched Zimmerman in the face, breaking his nose, Zimmerman's former attorneys and family have said.
A scuffle ensued, and Zimmerman reached for his licensed Kel Tek 9 mm semiautomatic handgun from the holster on his waist and fired once, hitting Travyon in the chest.
The Sanford Police Department immediately came under fire for its handling of the investigation, as witnesses said detectives performed cursory interviews to support the set of facts they were accepting as true: that Zimmerman had committed a justifiable homicide.
The accounts from witnesses were mixed, although they largely agreed that they all assumed that the person they heard screaming for help was the one who had been shot. Zimmerman claimed those cries were his unanswered calls for help, and Sanford police believed him.
"This matter is now in the hands of the judicial system and I am confident justice will prevail," Gov. Scott said in a statement Wednesday. "As the process continues, it is critical that we be patient and allow the proceedings to move forward in a fair and transparent manner. I thank State Attorney Angela Corey for her diligence in conducting a thorough investigation. We will all continue to look for answers to the Trayvon Martin tragedy."
(Staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.)