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SANFORD, Fla–George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watchman whose trial for the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin riveted viewers and sparked a national conversation about race and justice, was found not guilty on all charges Saturday.
Zimmerman, 29, was acquitted on charges of second-degree murder in the death of Martin, a 17 year old whom the defendant shot during a scuffle in a nearby gated community on Feb 26, 2012. The six-woman jury also found Zimmerman not guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The jury signaled they had reached a verdict 9:45 pm ET and filed into the courtroom around 10 pm. After the verdict was read, Judge Debra Nelson polled the jurors to make sure each agreed with the decision. She then told Zimmerman he was free to go.
Zimmerman showed little emotion as the verdict was announced.
The decision from the jury had been expected to spark outrage from Martin family supporters who say the teen’s death was ignored by police and prosecutors for weeks because of his race. Martin was black, and Zimmerman is half white and half Hispanic. But more than an hour after court was adjourned, only a handful of demonstrators were outside the courthouse and they were heavily outnumbered by members of the media trying to interview them.
Estefania Galvez, a protester with the national “Justice for Trayvon” group, said protesters will hold a press conference on Sunday at the courthouse to announce a national day of protest on Monday. There were reports of some demonstrations in other cities sparking late Saturday night. Dozens of people marched in San Francisco holding signs in support of Martin, and another spontaneous rally was reported in Washington D.C.
Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read. They later tweeted thanks to their supporters.
“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,” Fulton tweeted. “Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!”
Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, tweeted, “Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY,” he wrote.
The jurors deliberated 12 hours on Saturday–including a one-hour lunch during which they were allowed to discuss the case–before alerting the court that they would like the attorneys to clarify the charge of manslaughter. The attorneys on both sides told the jury that they could not speak about the charge “in general terms” but would be happy to answer a more specific question.
The jury never sent back a more specific inquiry. They only made one other request during their deliberations–for an itemized list of all the evidence presented during the trial on Friday. They reached their verdict after 16 hours of deliberating over two days. The jurors, whose identities are protected by a court order, declined an opportunity to talk to the media after the verdict.
In a televised three-week trial, jurors heard the defense and prosecution each paint very different pictures of the night in question. Zimmerman was an angry “wannabe cop” who was seething with anger at a rash of break-ins in his neighborhood when he pursued and shot Martin, the state has argued. The defense, meanwhile, maintained Zimmerman was within his rights to follow and question Martin, and that it was the teen who became violent, prompting Zimmerman to shoot as a way to save his own life.
The case ignited a national debate over self-defense laws and race, prompting marches and demonstrations around the country. Local leaders have urged members of the community to remain peaceful no matter what verdict the jury hands down.
The prosecution failed to convince the jury that Zimmerman had “a depraved mind without regard for human life” when he shot Martin, which was required for second-degree murder. A lesser manslaughter conviction could have been handed down if the jury believed Zimmerman had no lawful reason to kill Martin, even if he bore Martin no ill will. The law says if Zimmerman had a “reasonable” belief that his own life was in jeopardy or that he could suffer bodily harm from Martin, he was justified in killing him.
At a press conference following the verdict, prosecutors expressed disappointment with the outcome but urged the community to remain calm.
“We have from the beginning just prayed for the truth to come out and for peace to be the result and that continues to be our prayers,” prosecutor John Guy said.
But prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda insisted the fundamentals of the case should have favored the prosecution. “We respect the jury’s verdict but really this is about a kid being followed by a stranger,” de la Rionda said.
Benjamin Crump, a civil rights attorney advising the Martin family, echoed that plea. “For Trayvon to rest in peace, we must all be peaceful,” Crump said at a press conference.
Zimmerman’s defense attorney, Mark O’Mara, told reporters that he believed Zimmerman will now try to return to a normal life. O’Mara said that Zimmerman was used as a “scapegoat” by people who wanted to create a civil rights violation, and was thus overcharged in the crime. “It certainly wouldn’t have happened if he was black,” O’Mara said of his client being charged with murder.
O’Mara also compared the media to “mad scientists” who had turned his client into a “monster” with shoddy reporting.
O’Mara mentioned that he will vigorously defend any forthcoming civil charges against his client, and that he may seek to recoup some of Zimmerman’s defense costs from the state.
Witnesses gave conflicting testimony over who was the aggressor of the fight and both Zimmerman’s family and Martin’s family have claimed it was their relative who could be heard screaming for help in the background of a 911 call during the fight.
Zimmerman wasn’t arrested in the shooting for weeks, after a public outcry. Bill Lee, then the police chief of Sanford, said Zimmerman was justified under Florida’s stand your ground self defense law. Lee lost his job after the incident, and a special prosecutor was appointed to argue the case.