JACKSONVILLE/SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - A special prosecutor in Florida charged neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder on Wednesday in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin - a move that protesters had been demanding for weeks in the racially charged case.
Zimmerman was under arrest at an undisclosed location in Florida, officials said.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey’s decision came 45 days after the fatal shooting in a quiet gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
Police had declined to arrest Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, based on his account of self-defense, setting off civil rights demonstrations around the country.
“I can tell you we did not come to this decision lightly,” Corey told a news conference in Jacksonville.
“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.”
The decision on whether to charge Zimmerman, for the death of Martin, 17, had rested with Corey since she was appointed by Florida’s governor on March 22.
The firestorm of protests forced Sanford’s police chief to step aside and the regularly assigned prosecutor to remove himself from the case on March 22, leading to Corey’s appointment.
By seeking second-degree murder rather than a lesser charge, such as manslaughter, Corey reaffirmed her reputation as a prosecutor who will seek to bring the most serious charge possible. If convicted, Zimmerman could face a prison sentence of up to 25 years to life.
Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense during a confrontation with the unarmed Martin on February 26.
As the basis for their refusal to arrest Zimmerman, police cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm.
The shooting received scant media attention at first, but Martin’s parents and lawyers kept making public calls for Zimmerman’s arrest. That eventually led to a media frenzy, and outraged online messages by celebrities about the case. Even President Barack Obama commented on the case, saying: “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.”
The disputed facts surrounding the shooting have been picked apart endlessly by television commentators while dominating the headlines and reigniting a discussion about guns, self-defense laws and what it means to be black in America.
Zimmerman’s relatives and supporters have insisted he is not racist and has been unfairly vilified. They said he feared for his life during his altercation with Martin and was justified in using deadly force.
The case took an unexpected turn on Tuesday when the two lawyers representing Zimmerman, Craig Sonner and Hal Uhrig, dropped him as a client because they said they had lost contact with him. They asserted, however, that he had left Florida.
Additional reporting by Barbara Liston; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Edited by Prudence Crowther and Christopher Wilson