SANFORD – George Zimmerman is a free man.
After nearly 16 hours of deliberations over two days, a six-member jury - all women, five of them white – acquitted Zimmerman, the Neighborhood Watch volunteer charged with murdering Trayvon Martin in what became one of the most racially-charged criminal cases in the country.
Jurors found that 29-year-old Zimmerman acted in self-defense when he shot Trayvon, an unarmed black 17-year-old, on Feb. 26, 2012 as the two fought on the ground near Zimmerman's home.
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Zimmerman, 29, showed no emotion when the verdict was read at 10 p.m. Saturday. His wife, Shellie, sitting in the gallery behind him, began crying quietly.
“Obviously we are ecstatic with the results,” defense attorney Mark O'Mara said moments after the verdict was read. “George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything.”
Co-counsel Don West, though, was defiant and angry.
“I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was despicable,” he said. “I'm glad this jury kept this tragedy from being a travesty.”
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The verdict was a heart-breaking outcome for Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who had spent the last year-and-half campaigning first for Zimmerman's arrest then his conviction.
They were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read, but they had sat side-by-side through nearly every other day of his five week-long trial - including two weeks of jury selection - seldom showing emotion.
The rare exception was when Sybrina Fulton would wipe away a tear or leave the courtroom to spare herself the details of her son's autopsy or from having to hear a recording of screams and the gunshot that killed him.
Both testified briefly, identifying those screams as coming from their son.
Seconds after the verdict was read Saturday, Tracy Martin took to Twitter:
“God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS,” he tweeted.
About an hour after the verdict was read, attorneys for Trayvon’s family said they — and Trayvon’s family — were urging people to remain calm in the wake of the verdict.
“For Trayvon to rest in peace, we must all be peaceful,” said attorney Benjamin Crump. “The whole world was looking at this case for a reason. We need to move forward from this tragedy and learn from it.”
Self defense vs. murder
Zimmerman shot Trayvon as the two fought on the ground near Zimmerman's Sanford home. Moments earlier the defendant had called police, describing Trayvon, a high school junior from Miami Gardens, as suspicious. It was raining; night was falling and Trayvon was standing in a neighbor's yard with the hood of his sweat shirt pulled up.
Despite three weeks of evidence, attorneys and witnesses were unable to definitively say how the two came face to face. Neighbors reported hearing an argument then a fight then screams for help.
Zimmerman said he shot the teenager in self-defense, that Trayvon had punched him in the nose, breaking it and knocking him to the ground then climbed on top and begun hammering his head against a sidewalk.
After the verdict, lead prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda said, “Am I disappointed? Yes because I thought he was guilty.”
His boss, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, said her office had not over-reached by charging Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Paraphrasing prosecutor John Guy’s closing statements in the case, Corey said: “To the living we owe respect. To the dead, we owe the truth. We have shown respect to the living, and we believe we have brought out the truth on behalf of Trayvon Martin.”
At trial prosecutors faced an insurmountable obstacle: They could not prove who threw the first punch.
Two days before they put on their first witness, Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson tossed out one of their most damaging pieces of evidence, an analysis by two audio experts who had independently concluded that Trayvon was the one screaming for help in the background of a neighbor's 911 call.
That left them with a mish-mash of neighbor-witnesses who gave conflicting accounts, a series of statements by Zimmerman that had some variations but were mostly consistent, inconclusive physical evidence and Rachel Jeantel.
She is the 19-year-old Miami woman still in high school and unable to read cursive writing who was on the phone with Trayvon moments before he was shot.
She told jurors Trayvon was worried about a “creepy-ass cracker” who was following him and had suddenly reappeared.
The two exchanged words, she said, then she heard a bump, “grass sound,” then Trayvon say, “ 'Get off. Get off.' “
Case marked by racial tension
The case was one that deeply divided the nation over the issue of race.
In the weeks after the shooting, while Sanford police persisted in their decision not to arrest Zimmerman, thousands of protesters took to the streets, not just in Sanford but in major cities across the country as well as Europe.
Civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and the Rev. Al Sharpton, came to Sanford and led thousands of people in marches and rallies in March 2012, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. He was arrested and charged in April 2012.
Both Jackson and Sharpton released statements after the verdict.
“The acquittal of George Zimmerman is a slap in the face to the American people but it is only the first round in the pursuit of justice,” Sharpton wrote in a statement. “We intend to ask the Department of Justice to move forward as they did in the Rodney King case and we will closely monitor the civil case against Mr. Zimmerman.”
Sharpton went on to say he would convene an “emergency call” with preachers Saturday night “to discuss next steps,” adding that he intends “to head to Florida in the next few days.”
Jackson, meanwhile, took to Twitter.
“Avoid violence, it will lead to more tragedies. Find a way for self construction not deconstruction in this time of despair. #ZimmermanTrial,” Jackson tweeted.
In the weeks and months after Trayvon was killed, more than a million people signed an on-line petition, demanding his arrest. NBA stars wore hoodies as a sign of solidarity, and members of the Black Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives drafted a resolution, describing the killing as one of “racial bias.”
Political leaders responded. Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor — Corey — and under pressure from U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil rights investigation. The agency has not reported its outcome.
The governor also established a panel to review Florida's Stand Your Ground law, the statute that allows anyone to use deadly force if he has a reasonable fear of imminent death or grave bodily injury. It wrapped up its work, recommending no substantive changes.
Protesters returned Friday, with dozens turning out on the Seminole County criminal courthouse lawn as word spread that deliberations had begun. On Saturday, their numbers grew to 200 people, the overwhelming majority wanted a conviction. And crowds gathered late into the night, after the verdict was read, at the courthouse and in the historic Goldsboro area of Sanford.
About an hour after the verdict was read Saturday night, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, posted a message on Twitter that captured her grief.
“Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!”
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