Skip to main content

Experts argue appropriateness of murder charge in Martin case

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Thu April 12, 2012
Special prosecutor Angela Corey announcing the charge filed against George Zimmerman on Wednesday.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey announcing the charge filed against George Zimmerman on Wednesday.
  • The Zimmerman case is "typical second-degree murder," Florida lawyer says
  • Zimmerman's former attorney says the charge surprised many lawyers
  • Toobin: Prosecutors "threw the book" at Zimmerman
  • The charge suggests there's more to the case than publicly known, Hostin says

(CNN) -- The second-degree murder charge George Zimmerman faces in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin surprised some observers, but it's typical in "heat of passion" slayings, a Florida defense lawyer said Thursday.

Special prosecutor Angela Corey was closed-mouthed about the evidence supporting the charge when she announced it Wednesday. But Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda, who spoke at Zimmerman's first court appearance Thursday, told reporters that prosecutors "only file charges we can prove."

CNN Senior Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Corey "threw the book" at Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer from Sanford, Florida.

"This is the single most severe crime he could have been charged with under these circumstances," Toobin told CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360."

George Zimmerman appears before judge

But Miami defense attorney Jayne Weintraub told CNN's "Early Start" that she was not surprised by the charge.

"It's typical second-degree murder," Weintraub said. "It's the heat of passion, spur of the moment in the middle of a fight. That's what second-degree murder is typically used for."

Zimmerman told Sanford police he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense during a fight. He was allowed to remain free until Wednesday, sparking protests and a nationwide debate about race and racial profiling -- Zimmerman is Hispanic, while Martin was African-American.

Natalie Jackson, a lawyer for the Martin family, said the charge seems "appropriate" for the circumstances.

A collection of public documents in Trayvon Martin shooting

"It's actually a very brave charge of Angela Corey, and it really shows that she conducted an independent, impartial and fair investigation in this case," Jackson said. "She could have easily charged this as a manslaughter, to try to appease everyone, and she didn't. She did what prosecutors do. She charged it to the hilt."

We, as a legal community, thought that the charge would be only manslaughter.
Zahra Umansky, attorney

Zahra Umansky, who represented Zimmerman after a 2005 arrest on an assault charge, said the severity of the count came as a surprise to many lawyers.

"We, as a legal community, thought that the charge would be only manslaughter," Umansky told CNN's "Starting Point."

In the 2005 case, Zimmerman entered a pre-trial diversion program and took an anger-management class, Umansky said. In his application for a 2008 law-enforcement program at the Seminole County sheriff's office, he said the arrest stemmed from a case of mistaken identity.

A conviction for second-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Under Florida law, prosecutors who bring a case are expected to show that a death resulted from a criminal act and that the killer showed a "depraved mind" without regard for human life.

What happens now

Weintraub said that's demonstrated by Zimmerman getting scared "and he goes for his gun."

"When there's no gun, there's nothing facing him except a 17-year-old kid," Weintraub said. And she predicted that an account by Zimmerman's brother -- that Martin had beaten him nearly unconscious -- "won't match the evidence."

I suspect that there is some evidence we just don't know about.
Sunny Hostin, CNN legal analyst

And CNN legal analyst Sunny Hostin to CNN that despite the intense scrutiny of the incident, the charge suggests there's more to the case than publicly known.

"I suspect that there is some evidence we just don't know about, because no prosecutor in a high-profile case wants to walk into court and not be able to prove each and every count beyond a reasonable doubt," Hostin said. "You don't want to lose so publicly."

Although details of the evening shooting remain murky, what is known is that Martin ventured out from his father's fiancee's home in Sanford to a nearby convenience store, where he bought a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Ice Tea. On his way back, he had a confrontation with Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, and Zimmerman shot him.

Rodney King pleads for calm

Zimmerman had called 911 to complain about a suspicious person in the neighborhood, according to authorities. In the call, he said he was following Martin. Though the dispatcher advised him against it, Zimmerman pursued Martin anyway before saying he lost sight of him.

According to an Orlando Sentinel story later confirmed by Sanford police, Zimmerman told authorities that after he briefly lost track of Martin, the teen approached him. After the two exchanged words, Zimmerman said, he reached for his cell phone, and then Martin punched him in the nose. Zimmerman said Martin pinned him to the ground and began slamming his head into the sidewalk.

A police report indicated the volunteer was bleeding from the nose and the back of his head, and authorities have said Zimmerman was not immediately charged because there were no grounds at the outset to disprove his account of the confrontation.

Part of complete coverage on
George Zimmerman
updated 8:50 PM EST, Wed February 5, 2014
Let's get ready to ... mumble.
updated 8:35 PM EST, Fri January 24, 2014
George Zimmerman, who sold his first painting on eBay for a whopping $100,000, is at it again.
updated 2:41 PM EDT, Sun September 29, 2013
George Zimmerman's estranged wife said that while she respects the jury's not guilty verdict in his second-degree murder trial, she now has doubts about his innocence.
updated 1:11 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
George Zimmerman's defense team says people should delve into the "substance" of other comments made by a juror who claimed the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 1:12 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
A juror in the George Zimmerman trial says she feels the man who killed Trayvon Martin "got away with murder."
updated 3:52 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Four days after he was acquitted of murder, George Zimmerman stepped out of seclusion to help a family.
updated 1:09 PM EDT, Sun July 28, 2013
Florida law kept George Zimmerman from being held accountable in last year's shooting death of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, the teen's mom said.
updated 10:10 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
Vowing to keep fighting for his son Trayvon -- even after Zimmerman was acquitted of murder -- Tracy Martin said that his family wants to turn "negative energy" surrounding their plight "into a positive."
updated 12:54 PM EDT, Sat July 20, 2013
The nation has a long history of self-defense laws. Almost every state allows some version of the "castle" defense, as in "a man's home is his castle."
updated 12:43 AM EDT, Thu July 18, 2013
The woman known as Juror B37 in the George Zimmerman trial released a statement exclusively to CNN pushing for new laws.
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
One of the jurors who acquitted George Zimmerman said she had "no doubt" he feared for his life in the final moments of his struggle with Trayvon Martin.
updated 8:54 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
George Zimmerman "didn't do anything unlawful" and was "justified" in shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, according to one of the jurors who acquitted Zimmerman.
updated 1:04 AM EDT, Wed July 17, 2013
The friend who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin when his fatal confrontation with Zimmerman said she is upset at his acquittal on murder charges.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
His trial's over. And now it turns out that George Zimmerman might need the same thing millions of Americans are looking for: a job.
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
An employee of the Florida State Attorney's Office who testified that prosecutors withheld evidence from George Zimmerman's defense team has been fired.
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
This might sound like a legal conundrum.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon July 15, 2013
Suspected racism in the justice system, deep-seated, secretive and historic, was the crux of the case for millions, writes Tom Foreman.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Fri March 30, 2012
Just like most any other teenager, Trayvon Martin enjoyed listening to music and going to the movies, friends and family said.
updated 3:38 PM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
With a single phrase, Rachel Jeantel, that friend of Trayvon Martin's, may have lit a fuse in the trial of his accused killer.