In a case that touched off a national debate on race and guns, George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager killed during a confrontation on a rainy night in Florida last year.
“There’s to be no outbursts upon the reading of the verdict or afterwards,” Judge Debra S. Nelson warned the packed courtroom in Seminole County awaiting the verdict from the jury of six women who began deliberating on Friday and worked a 13-hour day Saturday.
Zimmerman stood at the defendant’s table, flanked by his lawyers as the verdict was read.
As he had been throughout the trial, Zimmerman was impassive. He seemed not to move a muscle until the jurors were taken out of the courtroom. Then the tension drained out of his face. A small smile began at the corners of his mouth and very slowly spread.
“Your bond will be released,” Nelson told Zimmerman. “Your GPS monitor will be cut off, and you have no further business with this court.”
Then the defendant’s side of the courtroom exploded in hugs. Zimmerman hugged his wife, Shellie, and friends who have waited during the long trial that began with jury selection last month. Zimmerman’s parents, Robert Sr. and Gladys, hugged each other. Gladys Zimmerman reached over to hug defense attorneys Don West and Mark O’Mara, who broke out in smiles.
“He’s very, very happy with the result,” O’Mara told reporters. “I think it’s probably going to settle on him tonight with his family when he realizes he doesn’t have to come back to the courthouse tomorrow or ever again. I think he’s still very, very worried.”
Outside the courthouse, where about 100 people had gathered to await the verdict in a small park, many reacted in disbelief. Many were black. They stood, stunned, as the verdict was announced.
“I have two sons of my own,” said Cathy Cole, one of the protesters. “I think the child was murdered.”
Zimmerman, 29, had been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting of Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, in central Florida.
He maintained that he shot Martin in self-defense when the teenager attacked him. Prosecutors argued that he had profiled and stalked Martin, 17, who was returning from a convenience store after buying Skittles and a soft drink. Wearing the now-famous hoodie sweat shirt, Martin was walking in the rain back to the home where he was staying in the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford.
After the verdict was read, the supporters and family of Martin left the courtroom silently, some shedding tears.
“We are very, very, very saddened, but we accept the jury’s verdict in this case,” Daryl Parks, one of the attorneys representing the Martin family, told reporters later. He said Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, and Tracy Martin, his father, “are just heartbroken.”
In the protests before and after Zimmerman’s indictment, hoodies played a prominent role. They, along with Skittles, were held up as symbols of racial profiling and of a senseless death.
“To everybody who put their hoodies on and to everybody who said, ‘I am Trayvon,’ his family expresses their heartfelt gratitude,” another family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said.
“Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of civil rights history along with Medgar Evers and Emmett Till,” said Crump, referring to two African Americans whose slayings were pivotal events in the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.
After the shooting, local police had accepted Zimmerman’s explanation that he acted in self-defense, but a special state prosecutor charged the neighborhood watch volunteer after weeks of protests and demonstrations by civil rights leaders across the nation. Much of the case’s tension began in the six weeks between the shooting and the indictment of Zimmerman on the charge of second-degree murder.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on Saturday night called on the U.S. Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, said the group’s president, Benjamin Jealous.
Led by the Martin family and civil rights leaders, supporters had called for Zimmerman, who identifies himself ethnically with his mother’s Latino heritage, to be charged with the slaying. They argued that if a black man had shot an unarmed white teenager, authorities would have been less likely to accept the self-defense argument.
The furor reached all the way to the White House.
“Obviously, this is a tragedy,” President Barack Obama said on March 23, 2012. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Questions about race have been part of the case from the beginning and continued to the end. Local law enforcement officials and pastors called for calm regardless of the verdict. Those pleas appeared to be heeded, though the disappointment was real.
Special prosecutor Angela B. Corey, who was in the courtroom during the weeks of trial, told reporters afterward that her team of prosecutors had done its best.
“This case has never been about race... (or) about the right to bear arms,” she said. “We believe that this case all along was about boundaries and that George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”
“Who was following who?” Bernie de la Rionda, who led the prosecution team, told reporters. “What it really boils down to is a kid minding his own business being followed by a stranger.... He gets accosted. He gets followed by an individual who wants to be a cop.”
Unlike in many murder cases, there was no mystery about who did the killing because Zimmerman said from the beginning that he had fired a single shot from his 9-millimeter handgun at Martin.
Prosecutors used witnesses and documents to present Zimmerman as a police wannabe, an eager neighborhood watch volunteer who was growing more frustrated by crime in his community. When he saw Martin, a stranger, walking on a rainy night, he called authorities to report someone suspicious. The dispatcher advised him to let the police handle it, but Zimmerman ignored that and followed Martin, prosecutors said.
Where the prosecution described Zimmerman as an out-of-control vigilante, the defense portrayed him as a good citizen making a personal sacrifice to help neighbors stay safe.
The prosecution said Zimmerman used his knowledge of police procedure and self-defense law to tailor his responses to authorities. The defense said he was trying to better himself by seeking a career in law enforcement.
There were no direct eyewitnesses to the moments before the confrontation. At least one witness, John Good, one of Zimmerman’s former neighbors, said he saw the pair tussle on the ground. Martin, in the dark sweat shirt, appeared to be on top of Zimmerman, Good testified. He said he heard cries for help coming from the person on the bottom.
Those screams were caught in the background of a 911 telephone call made by another resident. Within seconds, there was a gunshot and the screams abruptly ended.
An FBI audio expert testified that there was no way for science to determine whose voice was crying out, but the mothers of the dead teenager and the defendant offered clashing interpretations of the recording.
“I heard my son screaming,” Sybrina Fulton testified.
The defense opened its case with Gladys Zimmerman.
She was just as emphatic when, after listening to the recording and being asked who was screaming, she answered, “My son.”
When pressed on how she could be so certain, she replied: “Because it’s my son.”
By Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Michael Muskal - Los Angeles Times (MCT) Hennessy-Fiske reported from Sanford and Muskal from Los Angeles. Carolyn Cole in Sanford contributed to this report.
©2013 Los Angeles Times
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