Opening salvos have finally been fired in a legal battle that will eventually culminate in the blockbuster trial of the man who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin almost seven weeks ago.
George Zimmerman is due to appear in court in Sanford, Florida, for the first time since he was arrested and charged with the second degree murder of 17-year-old Martin, who died as he walked to the home of his father’s girlfriend, after visiting a local convenience store.
Attorneys say he will plead not guilty to the crime, which carries a sentence of anything from 25 years to life in prison, arguing that he acted in self defence and is therefore prevented by Florida’s now-notorious “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows gun owners to use lethal force when they feel endangered.
Today’s bond hearing will not focus on the details of the case, but would instead consider the thorny issue of bail. Zimmerman had arrived at Seminole County Jail in Sanford late last night, and escorted behind bars, with a jacket draped over his head.
His lawyer, Mark O’Mara, said he hoped Zimmerman could be freed, on a bond his family can afford, so the defence team could properly prepare for the forthcoming trial. But given the profile of the case, he will need police protection and may be unable to remain in Florida, he said.
"I think nobody would deny the fact if George Zimmerman is walking down the street today, he would be at risk," O’Mara told reporters. “He’s stressed “He’s tired. He’s been through a lot with the way this case has been handled.’’
News of Zimmerman’s arrest have helped relieve tension in Sanford, a city of 38,000 north of Orlando which had been the focus of angry and racially-charged protests in recent weeks and was described by its Mayor on Tuesday as a “tinder box.”
In poor and predominately-black Goldsboro neighbourhood just south of the city centre, dozens of worshippers had gathered round a television set at the Allen Chapel AME Church, a focus of recent demonstrations, to watch prosecutor Angela Corey announce the murder charge.
The news met with joyful prayers and hymns. Demetrius Smith, a resident, said he hoped that the decision would “show people that justice is being allowed to happen, and end all the anger, and stupidity” that has crept into local discourse.
Outrage over the initial failure by white police officers to arrest Zimmerman following Martin’s death on February 26 had seen both militant black power groups and neo-Nazi organisations on the streets of Sanford. On Tuesday, shots were fired into an empty police car near the scene of his alleged murder.
Teresa Ruffin, a pastor at the city’s Faith Ministry Worship Center, whose teenage son Ikeem was shot and killed in 2010 in circumstances which also sparked criticism of Sanford police, said she hoped coverage of Martin’s death would prompt thorough changes in the justice system.
“When I see Trayvon’s picture, on a shirt, on a poster, I see my son’s face. My Bible tells me all things happen for a reason, and that God is in charge of everything. So when a light needs to be shone on things that are not right, God will open doors for things to fall in line the way they should be. This case, it’s a door opener.”
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, appeared on NBC today morning to express relief at the fact that, after a long and gruelling campaign by her family, Zimmerman’s will finally be brought before a jury. "We just want him to be held accountable for what he done," she said. "We are happy that he was arrested so that he can give his side of the story."