Despite protesters' demands for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, it could be days, weeks or possibly months before state and federal investigations determine what -- if any -- charges should be filed.
We asked University of Florida law professor Kenneth B. Nunn to survey the legal process unfolding in the case that has sparked nationwide outrage. In laying out the landscape, Nunn noted one major caveat: Details and leaks in the case are unfolding on a near-daily basis, making it a highly unpredictable situation.
"At this point, anything could happen; there are so many different scenarios," he said.
Only one deadline is certain at this point, correct? April 10.
As far as the state is concerned, that's when prosecutors are expected to go to the Seminole County grand jury. I doubt very seriously that prosecutors will take any other action before then. Not because they couldn’t, but as a matter of politics they would want to proceed as cautiously as possible and cover every base.
The Justice Department and the FBI are also investigating. Is it possible they could interrupt that process?
I don't think so. I think everyone is going to wait until the grand jury hears the case. [Read more about the status of the federal inquiries here.]
How long will the grand jury take?
There isn’t any guarantee as to how long the grand jury will take. They may hear the evidence and they may make the decision in a day. It could take a week or longer. There's no telling.
Most cases do not go before a grand jury. Why is this one proceeding on that path?
It happens quite often when it is a controversial case that involves the police. ... The prosecution wants to insulate his or her office from any kind of criticism [by leaving the decision about whether to indict Zimmerman up to the grand jury].
What if Angela Corey, the Florida state attorney overseeing the case, comes across what she believes is irrefutable evidence of Zimmerman's innocence or guilt. Is she still required to go before the grand jury?
No, there's no requirement that they do so. They could do a direct file. But in a case where there is some controversy, there is political expediency to giving that decision to someone else. ... Regardless of what happens, there's plausible deniability. You can always say, 'It was the grand jury's decision.'
How much independence does a grand jury really have?
Some people say that the grand jury is a rubber stamp of what the prosecution wants. But there's also the possibility that you have a grand jury that leaves the control of the prosecution and asks to bring charges irrespective of what the prosecution wants and seek information that the prosecution doesn't want them to have. There's always that possibility, but it's slim.
There are many who believe Zimmerman targeted Martin because he was a young black man. Others believe Zimmerman can be heard making a racial slur during his 911 call to police. Some say there was no racial slur and Zimmerman's family insists he is not racist. How will authorities determine whether this is a hate crime?
In every case where a person is at large, you get a report from the police officers that gives a description that contains race. There’s always a racial description. I don’t think ... that's sufficient to bring a hate-crime charge. [Prosecutors] would have to show beyond a reasonable doubt that his intent was motivated by race.... That’s an easier case to make if this [allegedly racist] language does exist [on the 911 call]. There are two issues: Is there probable cause to believe that the killing was motivated by race? And is there proof beyond a reasonable doubt ... that race was the motivation for the killing?