By Tom Brown and Chris Francescani
SANFORD, Florida (Reuters) - George Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, could appear in a Florida courtroom on Thursday when his lawyer will seek to have the crime watch volunteer released on bail.
It would be the first public appearance by Zimmerman, 28, since he became a national and highly divisive figure by shooting and killing Martin, 17, in a quiet gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford.
The incident has set off a firestorm of debate about race relations and self-defense laws, punctuated by a series of demonstrations across the country. Even President Barack Obama commented on the case, saying, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."
Arrested and charged with second-degree murder on Wednesday, Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, was expected by his lawyer to appear in Seminole County Court for a hearing in which a judge will inform him of the charge and determine whether to set bail and in what amount.
"I hope he'll get a bond," Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said on Wednesday. "It's out of my hands and up to a judge." O'Mara said he hoped a judge would set bail at a level the Zimmerman family could afford.
The hearing would deal primarily with bail issue. At a later date when he is arraigned, Zimmerman will plead not guilty, O'Mara said. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.
If Zimmerman were released, it is unclear where he could safely live. He has been subjected to death threats and was in hiding from the public for weeks.
"He is a client who has a lot of hate focused on him right now," O'Mara said. "I'm hoping the hatred settles down."
"I can't imagine living in George Zimmerman's shoes the last few weeks," O'Mara added, saying he was "a prisoner wherever he was."
Zimmerman's relatives and supporters have insisted he is not a racist and say he has been unfairly vilified. They said he feared for his life during his altercation with Martin and was justified in using deadly force.
Special prosecutor Angela Corey brought the charge against Zimmerman 45 days after the fatal shooting, having taken over the case from local authorities who declined to arrest Zimmerman based on his account of self-defense.
That previous decision cast a spotlight on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe they are in danger of being killed or suffering great bodily harm.
"Let me emphasize that we do not prosecute by public pressure or by petition," Corey said. "We prosecute based on the facts of any given case as well as the laws of the state of Florida."
Zimmerman arrived at Seminole County jail on Wednesday night, after turning himself in. Officers escorted him from a black SUV to the jail with a jacket draped over his head. His attorney said he expected police to provide "protective custody" for his client, given the emotions surrounding the case.
(Writing by Paul Thomasch and Peter Cooney)