Protesters outside Zimmerman trial

Protesters gather outside the courthouse in Sanford, Fla., as the jury in the George Zimmerman murder trial begins deliberations. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times / July 12, 2013)

SANFORD, Fla.--As the six-member jury in the George Zimmerman murder case began deliberating at the courthouse here on Friday, about 20 protesters gathered outside the building, using bullhorns and carrying handmade signs reading “Justice 4 Trayvon” and “If you white & wanna get away with murder, come to Fla.!”

Lillian Cintron, 27, of Sanford, chanted and hoisted one of those signs, hoping the jury votes to convict Zimmerman of either second-degree murder or manslaughter.

“I wouldn't be satisfied with him walking away not guilty,” Cintron said, as a member of the New Black Panther Party from Jacksonville, Fla., shouted beside her, “It's murder, not manslaughter!”

A white couple watched from a nearby metal barricade. Jim and Tara Ehlers of Greenville, S.C., stopped in Sanford on their way home from vacation “to support George,” Jim Ehlers said.

Ehlers, 48, a contractor, said that like many others across the country, he had watched almost every day of the trial on television. He evaluated the evidence and sided with the defense.

“I just feel they had more evidence,” of self-defense, he said, adding about opponents: “If they want change, they need to change the law."

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, acknowledges shooting Trayvon Martin but argues it was self-defense. Martin, 17, was black, and Zimmerman identifies himself as a Latino.

The Ehlers said they wished the case had not become one about race and hoped the jury would return a verdict soon.

“The longer it's dragged out,” Tara Ehlers, 42, said, “the more tense it will be.”

After jurors left the courtroom to deliberate, Zimmerman's family released a statement urging people to accept the verdict, whatever it is.

“Our family has been clear to express our trust in the judicial system,” they wrote. “As we await a verdict we will remain hopeful and ask for the public to remain peaceful, no matter the outcome."

Inside the courthouse, Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, who is white, stood beside the new Sanford police chief, Cecil Smith, who is black, and called for calm ahead of the verdict.

“The lives of two families have forever been altered and our hearts and prayers go out to both,” Eslinger said.

As sheriff's deputies gathered near the front of the criminal justice center, the sheriff appeared to be addressing an unspoken fear: that a verdict could bring unrest, rioting or looting.

“We may not agree with this verdict, but as communities within this country, we respect the rule of law,” Eslinger said.

Chief Smith, who noted that after Martin's shooting, the Justice Department launched an inquiry, the police department was overhauled  and officers worked with local pastors to improve community relations.

“It's a trying time for all of us,” Smith said.

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