JACKSONVILLE — More than six weeks after he fatally shot an unarmed 17-year-old with no criminal record, former neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman was arrested Wednesday on a second-degree murder charge.
The charge, which Trayvon Martin's family praised, opened a new chapter in a case that renewed debate over Florida's "stand your ground" law.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey, the state attorney for the Jacksonville area, announced the charge in a news conference Wednesday evening.
Asked about the racial overtones of the case — Martin, who was black, was shot and killed by Zimmerman, a Hispanic man who was not immediately arrested by the local police — Corey said that law enforcement officials were committed to justice for all, regardless of race, gender or background.
"We only know one category as prosecutors, and that's a 'V,' " Corey said. "It's not a 'B,' it's not a 'W,' it's not an 'H.' It's 'V,' for victim. That's who we work tirelessly for. And that's all we know, is justice for our victims."
If he is convicted of second-degree murder, Zimmerman, 28, could face life in prison. It is the toughest charge he could have faced, short of first-degree murder, which would have required a finding of premeditation.
Zimmerman arrived at the Seminole County Jail around 8:25 p.m. and stepped out of a black SUV in the custody of law enforcement agents.
He is expected to appear in court today. His attorney, Mark O'Mara, said he will plead not guilty.
Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, praised the arrest and charge at an emotional news conference in Washington, where they had been meeting with their lawyers and supporters.
In announcing the arrest, Corey would not discuss how she reconciled the conflicting accounts of what happened or explain how she arrived at the charges, saying too much information had been made public already. But she made it clear she was not influenced by the public uproar over the past six weeks.
"We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition. We prosecute based on the facts on any given case as well as the laws of the state of Florida," Corey said.
Many legal experts had expected her to opt for the lesser charge of manslaughter, which usually carries 15 years behind bars and covers reckless or negligent killings.
The most severe homicide charge, first-degree murder, is subject to the death penalty in Florida and requires premeditation — something that all sides agreed was not present in this case.
O'Mara said Zimmerman will invoke Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gives people wide leeway to use deadly force without having to retreat in the face of danger.
The lawyer asked that people not jump to conclusions about his client's guilt and said he is "hoping that the community will calm down" now that charges have been filed.
"I'm expecting a lot of work and hopefully justice in the end," O'Mara said.
Corey said that her office routinely fights stand your ground motions. "If stand your ground becomes an issue, we will fight it," she said.
Corey's decision followed a 45-day campaign by Martin's parents to have Zimmerman arrested despite his claim that he shot in self-defense. They were joined by civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.
The debate reached all the way to the White House, where President Barack Obama observed last month: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
The fatal confrontation took place in a gated community where Martin was staying with his father and his father's fiancée. Martin was walking back in the rain from a convenience store when Zimmerman noticed him and called 911. He followed Martin despite being told not to by a police dispatcher, and the two got into a struggle.
Zimmerman told police Martin punched him in the nose, knocking him down, and then began banging Zimmerman's head on the sidewalk. Zimmerman said he shot Martin in fear for his life.
Zimmerman's brother Robert Zimmerman told CNN on Wednesday night: "Our brother literally had to save his life by taking a life. And that's a situation nobody wants to be in, ever."
On Tuesday, Zimmerman's former lawyers portrayed him as erratic and in a precarious mental condition. O'Mara, who signed on after Zimmerman's previous attorneys withdrew, said that Zimmerman seemed to be in a good state of mind but that the pressure had weighed mightily on him.
O'Mara also said the difficult case is compounded by the heavy media attention, which might make it hard to seat an impartial jury. Corey, similarly, complained: "So much information got released on this case that never should have been released. We have to protect this prosecution and this investigation for Trayvon, for George Zimmerman."
Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.