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Zimmerman’s Murder Charge: Prosecution Must Prove ‘Depraved Mind’

April 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A special prosecutor in Florida said Wednesday that she was charging George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a confrontation in late February, with second-degree murder. Jeffrey Brown discusses the legal reasoning behind the charge with Florida attorney Jeffrey Weiner.
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TRANSCRIPT

Videos of three Wednesday news conferences — featuring special prosecutor Angela Corey, George Zimmerman’s new attorney and the parents of Trayvon Martin — are posted at the bottom of this transcript.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to the latest on the Trayvon Martin case and a charge just brought in that killing. Martin was shot and killed in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in late February during a confrontation with George Zimmerman. The 17-year-old was unarmed. Zimmerman told police he’d acted in self-defense.

A short time ago, special prosecutor Angela Corey said she was charging Zimmerman with one count of second-degree murder and that he was now in custody.

Here’s an excerpt from her press conference.

ANGELA COREY, Florida state’s attorney: We launched an intensive investigation building on all of the work the Sanford Police Department and the state attorney’s office in Seminole County had already done.

Unless you’ve ever been a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor handling a difficult homicide case, you cannot know what it’s like to launch this type of investigation and come to the right conclusion.

The Supreme Court has defined our role on numerous occasions as prosecutors that we are not only ministers of justice, we are seekers of the truth. And we stay true to that mission. Again, we prosecute on facts and the laws of the great and sovereign state of Florida, and that’s the way it will be in this case.

When we took our oath of office in 2009, we pledged not only to look out for our precious victims of all of our cases, but also to adhere to the rules of the criminal justice system and the rules of our Constitution and statutes that protect a defendant’s rights as well.

When we charge a person with a crime, we are equally committed to justice on their behalf as we are on our victims’ behalf. So we are here to do that on behalf of our victim, Trayvon Martin, and on behalf of the person responsible for his death, George Zimmerman.

We will continue to seek the truth throughout this case. Every single day, our prosecutors across this great country handle difficult cases, and they adhere to that same standard, a never-ending search for the truth and a quest to always do the right thing for the right reason.

There is a reason cases are tried in a court of law, not in the court of the public and not by the media, because details have to come out in excruciating and minute fashion, detail by detail, bit of evidence by bit of evidence.

And it’s only then when the trier of fact, whether it’s a judge or a jury, gets all of those details that then the law is applied to that and a decision can be rendered. We will scrupulously adhere to our ethical obligations and to the rules of evidence in presenting this case that way.

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 a 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: More now on the charge against Zimmerman.

Jeffrey Weiner is an attorney in Florida and former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Welcome to you.

So, second-degree murder, tell us what that means. What is the charge?

JEFFREY WEINER, criminal defense attorney: Second-degree murder basically means that the act was imminently dangerous to another, evincing a depraved mind regarding of human life and without premeditated design, in other words, not first-degree murder and not manslaughter, second-degree murder, punishment up to life in prison.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that’s what I was wondering.

Among the things she could have charged him with, it’s manslaughter on one side and first-degree murder on the other?

JEFFREY WEINER: Basically, first-degree murder is premeditated, so I don’t think anybody thought she would charge that.

Most people I believe involved in the criminal justice system thought the charges would be manslaughter. Instead, she charged second-degree murder. It’s a very, very harsh and serious charge. Maybe it’s justified, maybe not. We’ll have to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s also, clearly, harder to prove, I would expect. So what is required in the proof?

JEFFREY WEINER: The proof is certainly more than what is required for manslaughter. They’re going to have to show that he had really a depraved mind. In other words, he didn’t plan this ahead of time. It wasn’t premeditated, but it was as reckless and wanton behavior as could possibly have taken place short of premeditation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, tied in to all this from the beginning, of course, was Florida’s stand your ground law. How does that play into this second-degree charge here?

JEFFREY WEINER: I’m not so sure it has much to do with it.

There’s always an inherent right of self-defense in states that don’t have this law and even before Florida adopted the law. Mr. Zimmerman’s counsel may argue that he had a right to confront Trayvon, that he went to him, and, at that point, he didn’t have to retreat when he was attacked.

We don’t know enough of the facts yet, but these are more serious charges than most people expected, and it’s a very, very heavy burden on the state of Florida to prove beyond a reasonable doubt all of the elements of second-degree murder.

JEFFREY BROWN: But so — but staying with this stand your ground, so just to be clear, the prosecutor wasn’t necessarily building a case around it; she was just saying it doesn’t apply or here’s the charge in spite of what that law is?

JEFFREY WEINER: I think it’s the latter. Here’s the charge. You defend yourself now, and good luck.

Now, whether she’s looking for a trial, whether she’s looking to try to coerce a plea to a less-serious charge, such as manslaughter, we’ll have to see.

JEFFREY BROWN: How unusual is this, just having — in Florida, just having a special prosecutor brought in, in a case like this?

JEFFREY WEINER: It happens often, but not all the time.

This is a case where I believe the governor was correct to do it. And I do salute this prosecutor for not bringing the matter to a grand jury. I think she was right to make the decision herself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain that. She did make that decision. What would that be based on? What was the alternative there?

JEFFREY WEINER: The alternative was what I would think would be sort of a cop-out, in other words, bring it to a grand jury. A grand jury typically does whatever the prosecutor asks the grand jury to do, and then the prosecutor can say, listen, even though I run for public office, this was not my decision. This was the decision of a grand jury.

Instead, she took the responsibility to say, listen, this is not first-degree murder. I don’t have to give it to a grand jury. I will make the decision. And I think that was proper and correct.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, just yesterday, George Zimmerman’s lawyers withdrew from the case. They said that they were having trouble contacting him. They said they were worried about his emotional, his physical state. So where does that — where does that leave things for him?

JEFFREY WEINER: Well, I’m not sure if he’s going to have a private lawyer or an appointed lawyer, if he qualifies.

Frankly, the behavior of the lawyers, in my opinion, was shocking. I have never witnessed anything like that in almost 39 years as a criminal defense lawyer. I think the conduct of those lawyers will be subject to scrutiny by the Florida bar.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because, what, speaking to the media, you mean, or just — or withdrawing?

JEFFREY WEINER: Well, not just — not just speaking to the media, and certainly not withdrawing, but all of the facts, the comments that they said, that they haven’t been in touch with the client, that they haven’t spoken with him, they don’t know where he is.

I mean, they said a lot of things that are, number one, privileged, number two, totally inappropriate, and, in my view, it looked like a publicity move more than actual serious representation in this very, very important and serious case.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the prosecutor just a few minutes ago said that Mr. Zimmerman is now in custody.

That was after yesterday, where the lawyers were saying his whereabouts were unknown. But the prosecutor, I gather, has said — she’s not saying where — where he’s being held. Is that unusual?

JEFFREY WEINER: No, it’s not unusual.

My thought always was, when she announced charges, he would already be in custody. So that happened one of two ways. Either the police went out and arrested him, or he has counsel, or contacted them and said, listen, if you’re going to charge me, I’ll surrender myself.

We don’t yet know the details. There’s a very, very strong chance, however, that he will be granted bond, although not immediately, because in Florida, there is typically a secondary hearing in which the state tries to keep someone in custody, if that’s what they want to do, on life felony charges, such as this one, and the defense moves for a bond.

And absent an agreement, he will not be released tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was very interesting to hear the prosecutor there talk about not trying this in — not trying this in the public, not trying this in the media.

Of course, this case has aroused national attention and no doubt in Florida as well. Would you think that that played — or put some special pressure on her to act quickly?

JEFFREY WEINER: Yes.

I don’t think she acted that quickly, frankly. But she had pressure, international pressure even, to make a decision in this case. I think she feels she has enough evidence to go forward. She made the obligatory comments of looking out for a defendant’s rights. We’ll see about that as the case goes on.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what does happen next? What’s the next step?

JEFFREY WEINER: Well, the first step is he has an initial appearance. At that point, if there’s no agreement as to bond, a bond hearing will be set, it’s called an Arthur hearing, in Florida.

After that matter is resolved, whether he’ll be held in custody pending the outcome of the case or released on bond, then we have what’s called discovery. Florida is one of the best states in the country for open discovery. There’s no ambush, like in federal courts. All witnesses must be disclosed. All evidence must be disclosed, and the defense lawyer or lawyers will prepare this case for trial or ultimately a plea.

It just depends how this case plays out.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Jeffrey Weiner, thanks so much.

JEFFREY WEINER: My pleasure. Great questions.

Watch Special Prosecutor Angela Corey’s News Conference:

Watch Zimmerman Attorney Mark O’Mara’s News Conference:

Watch Trayvon Martin’s Parents React to Charges Against Zimmerman: