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George Zimmerman not guilty in Trayvon Martin killing

Updated: July 14, 2013 5:32PM



SANFORD, Fla. — Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman was cleared of all charges Saturday in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager whose killing unleashed furious debate across the United States over racial profiling, self-defense and equal justice.

Zimmerman, 29, blinked, smiled slightly and shook hands with one of his lawyers when the verdict was announced.

His wife, Shellie Zimmerman, had tears in her eyes.

After hearing the verdict, Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman he was free to go.

Outside the central Florida courthouse, supporters of Martin’s family yelled, “No! No!”

Speaking at a news conference after the verdict, Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara said, “We’re ecstatic with the results. George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense.”

Zimmerman could have been convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter. But the jury of six women, all but one of them white, reached a verdict of not guilty after deliberating well into the night Saturday, and for more than 15 hous total over two days.

The verdict was the culmination of a case that captured the nation’s attention and is likely to be imprinted in America’s history.

The not guilty verdict means the jury of six women found that Zimmerman justifiably used deadly force and reasonably believed that such force was “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself — Florida’s definition of self-defense.

“It means there was reasonable doubt,” said Susan Constantine, a jury consultant and body language expert who regularly attended Zimmerman’s trial. “They just could not put the pieces together.”

The case has gripped the nation since the shooting happened on Feb. 26, 2012. Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, which allows someone who believes they are in imminent danger to take whatever steps are necessary to protect themselves.

Protests ensued in several cities by supporters of Martin’s family. Many protesters voiced the opinion that he was targeted and killed for racial reasons. Martin was black, and Zimmerman is Hispanic.

“You have a little black boy who was killed,” said Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin’s parents. “It’s going to be reported in history books ,and 50 years from now, our children will talk about Trayvon Martin’s case like we talk about Emmett Till.”

Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago, was tortured, murdered and grossly disfigured in Mississippi after being accused of flirting with a white woman.

In Zimmerman’s case, State Attorney Angela Corey stepped in and charged Zimmerman with murder on April 11, 2012. Prosecutors never argued that Zimmerman racially profiled the teen and instead said the teen was profiled as a criminal.

The jurors considered nearly three weeks of often wildly conflicting testimony over who was the aggressor on the rainy night the 17-year-old was shot while walking through the gated townhouse community where he was staying.

Defense attorneys said the case was classic self-defense, claiming Martin knocked Zimmerman down and was slamming the older man’s head against the concrete sidewalk when Zimmerman fired his gun.

Prosecutors called Zimmerman a liar and portrayed him was a “wannabe cop” vigilante who had grown frustrated by break-ins in his neighborhood committed primarily by young black men. Zimmerman assumed Martin was up to no good and took the law into his own hands, prosecutors said.

Corey said after the verdict that she believed second-degree murder was the appropriate charge because Zimmerman’s mindset “fit the bill of second-degree murder.”

“We charged what we believed we could prove,” Corey said.

As the verdict drew near, police and city leaders in the Orlando suburb of Sanford and other parts of Florida said they were taking precautions against the possibility of mass protests or unrest in the event of an acquittal.

“There is no party in this case who wants to see any violence,” Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said after jurors began deliberating. “We have an expectation upon this announcement that our community will continue to act peacefully.”

The verdict came a year and a half after civil rights protesters angrily demanded Zimmerman be prosecuted.

Zimmerman wasn’t arrested for 44 days after the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting as police in Sanford insisted that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law on self-defense prohibited them from bringing charges. Florida gives people wide latitude to use deadly force if they fear death or bodily harm.

Martin’s parents, along with civil rights leaders such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, argued that Zimmerman — whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic — had racially profiled their son. And they accused investigators of dragging their feet because Martin was a black teenager.

Before a special prosecutor assigned to the case ordered Zimmerman’s arrest, thousands of protesters gathered in Sanford, Miami, New York and elsewhere, many wearing hoodies like the one Martin had on the night he died. They also carried Skittles and a can of iced tea, items Martin had in his pocket. President Barack Obama weighed in, saying that if he had a son, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Despite the racially charged nature of the case, race was barely mentioned at the trial. Even after the verdict, prosecutors said race was not about race.

“This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms,” Corey said. “We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

One exception was the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the Miami teen who was talking to Martin by phone moments before he was shot. She said he described being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker” as he walked through the neighborhood.

Jeantel gave some of the trial’s most riveting testimony. She said she overheard Martin demand, “What are you following me for?” and then yell, “Get off! Get off!” before his cellphone went dead.

The jurors had to sort out clashing testimony from 56 witnesses in all, including police, neighbors, friends and family members.

For example, witnesses who got fleeting glimpses of the fight in the darkness gave differing accounts of who was on top. And Martin’s parents and Zimmerman’s parents both claimed that the person heard screaming for help in the background of a neighbor’s 911 call was their son. Numerous other relatives and friends weighed in, too, as the recording was played over and over in court. Zimmerman had cuts and scrapes on his face and the back of his head, but prosecutors suggested the injuries were not serious.

To secure a second-degree murder conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury that Zimmerman acted with a “depraved” state of mind — that is, with ill will, hatred or spite. Prosecutors said he demonstrated that when he muttered, “F------ punks. These a-------. They always get away” during a call to police as he watched Martin walk through his neighborhood.

To win a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors had to convince the jury only that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.

Contributing: Gannett News Service



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