April 12, 2012

“WE DO NOT prosecute by pressure or petition. We prosecute cases based on the relevant facts of each case and on the law of the state of Florida.”

So declared State Attorney Angela B. Corey in announcing second-degree murder charges against George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February. Ms. Corey hit all the right notes, explaining that her job was not to secure convictions but to be a “minister of justice.” She appropriately emphasized that Mr. Zimmerman’s rights must also be protected and cautioned against drawing any conclusions before the evidence has been heard and tested.

Ms. Corey typically works out of Jacksonville but was tapped as a special prosecutor on the matter after Sanford law enforcement officials initially decided not to arrest Mr. Zimmerman. Her appointment occurred only after Mr. Martin’s parents publicly decried the handling of their son’s death, seemingly incriminating 911 tapes involving Mr. Zimmerman were released, and the Justice Department announced plans to conduct its own investigation. Whether the state would have pressed forward but for these developments may never be known.

Mr. Zimmerman, who made a brief court appearance Thursday to acknowledge the charges against him, will be arraigned next month, at which time he will have the opportunity to enter a plea. Before a trial convenes, he may also have a chance to seek dismissal of the case under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which shields individuals from prosecution if they show that they employed lethal force to combat what they reasonably perceived to be a serious threat to their life or safety. The law, a version of which has been adopted by some 20 states, all but invites individuals to shoot first and ask questions later, and should be repealed. Ms. Corey rightly has promised to fight such a defense if invoked by Mr. Zimmerman.

On Thursday, Ms. Corey’s office filed a sworn affidavit buttressing many of the assertions that first triggered public outrage. Mr. Martin was “profiled” by Mr. Zimmerman, the affidavit states. An interview with Mr. Martin’s girlfriend, with whom he was speaking on the phone just before being shot, revealed that Mr. Martin was “scared because he was being followed by an unknown male through the complex and didn’t know why” and that the teenager “attempted to run home but was followed.” Investigators assert in the sworn document that Mr. Zimmerman “got out of his vehicle and followed Martin” and that Mr. “Zimmerman confronted Martin and a struggle ensued.” They say that Trayvon Martin’s mother has identified the cries for help heard on 911 calls as those of her son.

All this remains to be tested in court, as it should be. Because of Florida law, chances are good that the case will be televised if it goes to trial, providing viewers with an opportunity to judge the evidence and the proceedings for themselves. Such broadcasts do not assure legitimacy, nor can they guarantee that the public accepts the results. But given the troubling origins of this case and the more recent concerns about whether Mr. Zimmerman can get a fair trial, this added level of scrutiny would be welcome.