By Justin Sink - 04/11/12 10:24 PM EDT
George Zimmerman, the man who allegedly shot and killed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, was charged Wednesday with second-degree murder, opening the latest chapter in a case that has become a proxy for national controversies over gun rights and racial tension.
"It is the search for justice for Trayvon Martin that has brought us to this moment," Florida State Attorney Angela Corey said at a news conference in Jacksonville.
Corey would not reveal where Zimmerman was being held out of security concerns.
"That's for his safety as well as everyone else's safety," Corey said.
Martin, 17, was killed in February while walking home from a local convenience store. Zimmerman claimed to have acted in self-defense against the unarmed Martin, and local officials cited the state's "stand your ground" law in opting against arresting him and making initial charges.
But thousands of protesters in cities across the country protested that the decision not to charge Zimmerman was racially motivated. The issue became a political lightning rod after President Obama offered his sympathies to the Martin family, noting that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon."
That drew criticism from some Republicans, who argued the president was unfairly politicizing an issue through the prism of race.
On Wednesday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich told CNN that the president's decision to weigh in on the controversy was "very dangerous."
"My only point was we ought to have equal empathy for every American that gets killed,” Gingrich said. “This particular case has become sort of a national case where the national media can talk about it, but there are tragic cases around the country involving Americans of every ethnic background and of every age and they deserve some real concern too and some real effort to understand what happened to them and why.”
Corey emphasized her decision was based on the facts of the case, and not political pressure.
"There is a reason cases are tried in the court of law and not the court of the public or the media," Corey said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) urged caution in a statement issued shortly before the charges were announced.
"We are fortunate in our state that most Floridians and local civic leaders are law-abiding, responsible citizens who all want justice to prevail," Scott said. "I trust in the goodness of all Florida citizens to allow our justice system to reach an appropriate conclusion in this case."
The news of Zimmerman's arrest came just a day after his attorneys said they had fallen out of contact with their client and were no longer representing him.
"As of the last couple days, he has not returned phone calls, text messages or emails," attorney Craig Sonner said. "He's gone on his own. I'm not sure what he's doing or who he's talking to."
CNN reported that Zimmerman had hired a new attorney, Mark O'Mara, although Corey was unable to confirm that report.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the Justice Department faces a “very high barrier” in bringing federal hate crime charges in a case like the Martin shooting.
“Many of you are greatly — and rightly — concerned about the recent shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages,” Holder said to the civil-rights group National Action Network. “If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action, and at every step, the facts and law will guide us forward.”