SANFORD, Fla. - The neighborhood watch volunteer who shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was arrested and charged with second-degree murder Wednesday after months of mounting tensions and protests across the country.
George Zimmerman, 28, could get up to life in prison if convicted in the slaying of the unarmed black teenager.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey announced the charges but would not discuss how she arrived at them or disclose other details of her investigation, saying: "That's why we try cases in court."
Second-degree murder is typically brought in cases when there is a fight or other confrontation that results in death but does not involve a premeditated plan to kill. It carries a mandatory minimum of 25 years behind bars when a gun is used.
Martin's parents expressed relief over the decision to prosecute their son's killer.
"The question I would really like to ask him is, if he could look into Trayvon's eyes and see how innocent he was, would he have then pulled the trigger? Or would he have just let him go on home?" said his father, Tracy Martin.
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Corey would not disclose Zimmerman's whereabouts for his safety but said that he will be in court within 24 hours, at which point he can request bail. He turned himself in in Florida.
Zimmerman's new attorney, Mark O'Mara, said: "I'm expecting a lot of work and hopefully justice in the end."
O'Mara asked that people not jump to conclusions about his client's guilt. He says he's "hoping that the community will calm down" now that charges have been filed and the case is moving forward.
O'Mara also said Zimmerman will plead not guilty to the second-degree murder charge.
On Tuesday, Zimmerman's former lawyers portrayed him as erratic and in precarious mental condition. But O'Mara said Zimmerman was OK: "I'm not concerned about his mental well-being."
Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, has asserted since the Feb. 26 killing in Sanford that he shot in self-defense after the teenager attacked him. Martin's family argued Zimmerman was the aggressor.
The shooting brought demands from black leaders for his arrest, touched off protests in which people wore hooded sweatshirts like the one the teenager had on, and set off a furious nationwide debate over race and self-defense that reached all the way to the White House, where President Barack Obama observed: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
Separately, the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division is conducting its own investigation.
Corey said the decision to bring charges was based on the facts and the law, declaring: "We do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition."
One of the biggest hurdles to Zimmerman's arrest over the past month was Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gives people wide leeway to use deadly force without having to retreat in the face of danger.
Corey repeatedly declined to answer questions about details in the case. "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," she said.
READ: Angela Corey's speech
VIDEO: Angela Corey's speech
After Corey's announcement Wednesday evening, Martin's stepmother, Alicia Martin, said the 45 days it took before the charges against Zimmerman seemed "like a lifetime."
"It's about time, and it's like it took so long, and we was waiting for this day, and the day has come. But, we still have along way to go," she said. "The trial, all of this, this is not done just because he's been arrested. This is just the beginning, and the family is glad."
Alicia Martin said her husband found out about the charges a day or so ago, but she only found out Wednesday that Zimmerman is in custody.
"It's overwhelming. It's like, really, truly, I thought it wasn't going to happen. I thought he was going to skip the country and everything. I thought, OK, when they bring the charges, he probably won't even be here. They're taking so long," Alicia Martin said. "When she said that he's in custody, that was a great feeling, a wonderful feeling."
Alicia Martin said she is confident that there will be justice in the trial "as long as it's not in Sanford."
Tensions have risen in recent days in Sanford, a town of 50,000 outside Orlando. Someone shot up an unoccupied police car Tuesday as it sat outside the neighborhood where Martin was killed. And a demonstration by college students closed the town's police station Monday.
But as the hour of the prosecutor's announcement neared, the Martin family and their lawyer pleaded for calm.
Around the time of the news conference, 37-year-old Jared Towns was walking near City Hall.
"This is not closure at all. It's just charges. We'll see what happens now. I'm happy he was charged. It's good for the family. But they aren't to the justice part of it, yet," he said.
Six weeks ago, Martin was returning to the home of his father's fiancee from a convenience store when Zimmerman started following him. Zimmerman told police dispatchers: "This guy looks like he is up to no good -- he is on drugs or something." At some point, the two got into a fight and Zimmerman used his gun.
Zimmerman told police Martin attacked him after he had given up chasing the teenager and was returning to his truck. He told detectives that Martin knocked him to the ground and began slamming his head on the sidewalk. Zimmerman's father said that Martin threatened to kill his son and that Zimmerman suffered a broken nose.
A video taken about 40 minutes after the shooting as Zimmerman arrived at the Sanford police station showed him walking unassisted without difficulty. There were no plainly visible bandages or blood on his clothing, but Zimmerman may have had a small wound on the back of his head.
The local prosecutor disqualified himself from the case, and Gov. Rick Scott appointed Corey, the prosecutor for Jacksonville, to take it over.
Corey has tried hundreds of homicide cases and is known for tough tactics aimed at locking up criminals for long sentences and making it difficult to negotiate light plea bargains. Corey is known in legal circles as being passionate about victims' rights.
She said she met with Martin's "sweet parents" and prayed with them.
"We only know one category as prosecutors, and that's a `V,"' she said at the news conference, referring to victims, and making a V with her fingers.
On Wednesday evening, Scott released the following statement:
"This matter is now in the hands of the judicial system and I am confident justice will prevail. As the process continues, it is critical that we be patient and allow the proceedings to move forward in a fair and transparent manner. I thank State Attorney Angela Corey for her diligence in conducting a thorough investigation. We will all continue to look for answers to the Trayvon Martin tragedy."
Copyright 2012 by Post Newsweek. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.