A Florida special prosecutor on Wednesday charged neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, 17, an unarmed black teenager.

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SANFORD, Fla. — For weeks, protesters nationwide have demanded the arrest of George Zimmerman.

A Florida special prosecutor made that happen Wednesday. She said Zimmerman — the neighborhood-watch volunteer who admitted to fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager in Sanford in February — had turned himself in and would be charged with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin, 17.

News of the arrest brought a sense of relief in a community that had been in the spotlight as the case gained attention worldwide.

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“We did not come to this decision lightly,” Florida State Attorney Angela Corey said at a news conference in Jacksonville.

Alluding to the intense publicity surrounding the case, she added, “Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition.”

Corey declined to discuss the details of the investigation that led her office to charge Zimmerman, who had claimed self-defense — and who had been free, though in hiding, for weeks. Late Wednesday, Zimmerman — his head covered — was ushered out of a black SUV and into the Seminole County jail in Sanford.

The charge carries a minimum of 25 years in prison and a maximum sentence that could put Zimmerman in prison for life.

Many legal experts had expected the prosecutor to opt for the lesser charge of manslaughter, which usually carries 15 years behind bars and covers reckless or negligent killings, rather than second-degree murder, which involves a killing that results from a “depraved” disregard for human life.

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.

“I predicted manslaughter, so I’m a little surprised,” said Michael Seigel, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches law at the University of Florida. “But she has more facts than I do.”

Martin’s parents, who were in Washington when the announcement came, expressed relief over the decision to prosecute Zimmerman.

“It feels good … knowing he’s off the street, that he’s in custody, that the wheel’s starting to turn in our favor,” said Trayvon Martin’s father, Tracy Martin.

Sybrina Fulton, the teenager’s mother, said as she fought back tears: “I want to say thank God. We simply wanted an arrest. We wanted nothing more, nothing less. We just wanted an arrest and we got it, and I say thank you.”

Alluding to the racial overtones of the case, she added: “I just want to speak from my heart to your heart because a heart has no color. It’s not black, it’s not white.”

Zimmerman, 28, will plead not guilty, said Mark O’Mara, his new attorney. Self-defense would be “one facet” of the defense, O’Mara told CNN, adding that Zimmerman was “troubled” by the charges but “doing OK” considering his circumstances.

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.

Zimmerman turned himself in earlier Wednesday and will make a court appearance as early as Thursday, when his lawyer plans to ask for bail.

In Sanford, a city of 53,000 with a history of racial tension, some African Americans had said they were worried that riots would break out if charges were not forthcoming against Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Latina.

On Tuesday, someone shot up an empty police car parked near Zimmerman’s neighborhood. On Wednesday, African-American resident Troy Jackson, 43, said he might participate in a riot if there were no charges. “I’m going to loot every Caucasian store,” he said, sitting in front of a grocery in the majority-black Goldsboro community. “Blood for blood.”

But as the news of the arrest trickled out, there was a sense of relief.

“I feel like this is the beginning of seeing justice prevail,” said Sanford resident Gloria Baskerville, 54.

Baskerville, who is black, said she was convinced she would have been immediately arrested if she had been in Zimmerman’s shoes. All she ever wanted to see, she said, was an arrest. If Zimmerman is acquitted, she said, “I would have to be satisfied with whatever the outcome is.”

After an initial investigation, Sanford police officials said that bringing charges against Zimmerman was complicated by Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows for the use of deadly force in some life-threatening situations.

Many critics have claimed the shooting — and the lack of an arrest — stemmed from the fact that the victim was black, considering it cut-and-dried evidence of the social injustices that people of color in the United States have long faced.

President Obama weighed in, calling the story a “tragedy,” and adding: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”

Zimmerman had taken a vigorous interest in the safety of his neighborhood, which had suffered a rash of break-ins in the weeks leading up to the evening of Feb. 26, when he saw Martin returning from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

Zimmerman was driving out of his gated town-home development on his way to the supermarket, when he called police and reported Martin as “a real suspicious guy” who looked like “he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs, or something.” Martin, of Miami, was staying with his father’s fiancée in the development.

The police dispatcher asked Zimmerman whether he was following the person. When Zimmerman replied that he was, the dispatcher told him, “We don’t need you to do that.” Moments later, Zimmerman — armed with a 9-millimeter weapon — got out of his car.

Zimmerman has said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen struck him in the face, knocked him down and began pounding his head into the ground. Others suspect Zimmerman was the aggressor, one who overstepped the legal bounds of a concerned citizen.

Coverage of the case was largely limited to local media until the call between Zimmerman and the dispatcher was made public, along with a 911 call that one resident made just before the shooting. In the background of that call, someone can be heard yelling for help. Martin’s parents insist that voice belonged to their son. Zimmerman has said the voice was his.

The Sanford police chief stepped down as national attention snowballed. On March 23, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed Corey, a state attorney from Jacksonville, to take over the investigation.

The Justice Department, meanwhile, is conducting a separate investigation to determine whether Zimmerman should be charged with violating Martin’s civil rights. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Wednesday that “if we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil-rights crime, we will take appropriate action.”

Zimmerman’s friends and family have argued that he is neither a racist nor a hothead, and have said that the facts would vindicate him.

This week, Zimmerman launched a website soliciting donations for his living and legal expenses.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, though pleased with the news of the murder charge, said it was not a cause for celebration.

“We do not want anyone high-fiving tonight. There’s no victory here. There’s no winners here. They’ve lost their son,” he said as Martin’s parents stood somberly beside him. “This is not about gloating. This is about pursuing justice.”

Los Angeles Times staff writers Tina Susman, Rene Lynch and Michael Muskal contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press and The Orlando Sentinel is included in this report.

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