The Trayvon Martin case began anew last Wednesday afternoon as George Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder, 45 days after Sanford Police found Zimmerman in a gated community in Florida holding the gun used to kill young Trayvon Martin. What began as a bungled investigation riddled with indecision and incompetence has given way to an investigation clear in its purpose and sure of its mission. At the fore lies State Attorney Angela Corey of Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit who led a stirring press conference while announcing the charge against Zimmerman and who, with her team, represents a sliver of hope that justice may prevail for Trayvon and his family.
In the weeks following Trayvon’s death, the case’s original lead prosecutor, State Attorney Norm Wolfinger, declared that his office could not show the probable cause necessary for an arrest. After weeks of criticism and a damning failure to explain why he refused to act on an affidavit from lead investigator Chris Serino on the night of the crime recommending Zimmerman be arrested, Wolfinger recused himself from the case after a conversation with Florida Governor Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi. Scott and Bondi appointed a special prosecutor, Angela Corey, to lead the case. Their announcement, some four weeks ago, came during the same press conference where it was also revealed that a Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection would be formed to review Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.
When Angela Corey spoke to the media and the country last Wednesday, it became clear that these changes and developments in the investigation were no political posturing. They were a firm statement of intent. Corey spoke passionately about her lifelong fight for victims and that if the Stand Your Ground law stood in the way of her and a victim, she’d fight that too. Her past experience and record indicates a willingness, bordering on need, to challenge orthodoxy and enforce her will. After being fired by her boss, State Attorney Harry Shorstein, in 2008, Corey ran for his job and beat his protege to her current office.
Within 30 seconds of the start of her comments, it became clear that a sea change in attitudes and methods had occurred in the investigation. For seemingly the first time in any official manner, Trayvon Martin was referred to as a “victim.” Corey went on to echo the popular “justice for Trayvon” slogan throughout her time at the podium. Where there was once no process to dispense justice, now there was one, clearly laid out and carefully explained. Although Corey stated repeatedly that her office does “not prosecute by public pressure or by petition," it was made clear to all that, regardless of the statutes in place in Florida, Corey and her team shared the nation’s outrage as “not only ministers of justice but seekers of truth.”
As a lifer in Florida law, Corey has an extensive and complicated history in the courtroom. She has been credited for her tough approach to violent crime, consistently charging, as in this case, to the fullest extent of the law. Although this has won her friends in law enforcement, the public has been less willing to stomach the alarming increase in felons, especially young African American felons, and her handling of another tragic case, where a 12-year-old boy stands accused of murdering his 2 year old brother. Corey has sought to try the elder child as adult, claiming that the juvenile system is ill-equipped to handle such a case, in trial or in punishment, but she has been criticized for endorsing a charge which could see a young child go to prison for the rest of his life.
Corey also spoke of her history with Florida’s Stand your Ground law. She noted that it is a difficult defense to break but, unlike her predecessor Wolfinger, she doesn’t believe that fact should preclude a prosecutor from trying a case. In her own words, “this is what we do, every day.” Affirmative defenses, like self defense, alibi, entrapment and insanity, are inherently difficult to disprove but, as has been the motif throughout the 45 days between incident and arrest, the legal process must be allowed to run its course.
In a case with many of the same racial undertones and legal complications as the Trayvon Martin case, Corey, in recent weeks, charged a white male driver with shooting a black male driver during a road rage-fueled confrontation. The man who pulled the trigger is also claiming self-defense and, as with Zimmerman, Corey has declared that, “if he fights it on Stand Your Ground, we’re going to fight back.” Even Zimmerman’s new lawyer, Mark O’Mara, acknowledged that there were “troublesome portions” to the law and that Florida would “have some conversations... about it as a state.” In another recent case, Corey notably elected not to charge a man who claimed self defense after he shot and killed another man.
It’s currently unclear, and may remain unclear for some time, what the prosecutors will use to prove their case, or if there will be a trial at all. O’Mara has made it clear that a plea bargain is entirely possible, affirming that the overwhelming majority of murder cases never reach trial. We may never know exactly what piece or pieces of evidence convinced Corey to prosecute, but we know from her rhetoric and her past that she will try this case “to the hilt.” Whether she triumphs or fails in prosecuting George Zimmerman, the trial itself will remain a victory for justice and common sense.