Neighbourhood watch leader walks free from Florida court after jury finds him not guilty over death of 17-year-old
George Zimmerman leaves the court after being found not guilty. Photograph: Getty
George Zimmerman walked free from a Florida courtroom late on Saturday after a jury acquitted the neighbourhood watch leader of murdering an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in a case that played into the national debates about race, civil rights and the proliferation of guns in US society.
Zimmerman, 29, smiled briefly and shook the hands of his lawyers Mark O’Mara and Don West after the verdict from the jury of six women was read.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of the 17-year-old shot dead by Zimmerman on the night of 26 February last year, were not in court to hear the decision. Martin said he was “brokenhearted”, and Fulton said it was her “darkest hour”.
The unanimous verdict came after more than 16 hours of deliberations by the panel at the Seminole County criminal justice centre in Sanford. They had sifted through the testimony of 56 witnesses and hours of lawyers’ arguments during the three-week trial. The jury accepted Zimmerman’s contention that he shot Martin in self-defence, believing his life to be in immediate danger.
“You have no further business with this court,” Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman, informing him that he was free to go and that his GPS tracking bracelet would be removed. Zimmerman’s wife Shellie broke down in tears and sobbed into a pink scarf, then beamed widely as she hugged her husband’s parents, Robert and Gladys.
The acquittal was greeted with cheers and angry shouts outside the courthouse, where dozens of banner-carrying supporters of the Martin family had gathered through the day.
Police stepped in to remove a vocal protester from the gathering but the protests remained largely peaceful. Teams of officers from the Sanford police department and the Seminole County sheriff’s office kept a close eye on the demonstrators, who included a smaller number calling for Zimmerman to be found not guilty.
O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead attorney, said his client was “very, very happy” with the jury’s decision. Asked if Zimmerman was scared for his future, O’Mara said: “I think he’s going to be great, I think he’s still worried and hopefully everyone will respect the jury’s verdict as they should and most have said they will, and we’ll take it day by day.
“I think he wishes he could wave a magic wand and get his life back. He has to be very cautious and protective for his safety because there’s still a fringe element out there who have said they want revenge.”
Martin’s parents said they were devastated. “Even though I am brokenhearted, my faith is unshattered. I will always love my baby Tray,” Tracy Martin said in one of three Tweets posted shortly after the decision was announced.
His ex-wife, Sybrina Fulton, said she was relying on her faith. “Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you,” she wrote on Twitter. “You are all that I have.”
Analysts said the verdict reflected a weak, circumstantial case put by the prosecutors. “We were able to have a fair hearing and an open trial but this is not a time for jubilance, it’s a time for reflection,” said Mark NeJame, a prominent Orlando attorney who turned down the chance to represent Zimmerman last year. “A young man is dead. This is just a tragedy and we need to figure out a way to do better.”
Martin, who lived in Miami, was walking back to the house of his father’s fiancée at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community carrying a soft drink and sweets he had bought at a local convenience store. Zimmerman, who worked as a mortgage underwriter, said he spotted the hoodie-wearing youth as he was on his way to buy groceries, then called police to report a “suspicious male”. Somehow, the two ended up in a fight.
Zimmerman was released without charge on the night of the shooting. After a campaign by Trayvon Martin’s parents prompted nationwide protests, Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine the circumstances of the case. Zimmerman was arrested in April last year, 44 days after the shooting.
The case hinged on the conflicting testimony of witnesses and the key issue of whose screams were heard on a recording of a 911 call made by one of Zimmerman’s neighbours, which also captured the fatal shot.
Martin’s mother, father and brother all testified that they were certain it was the teenager who was pleading for his life. Zimmerman’s parents and a numbers of friends and neighbours took the stand to insist that it was Zimmerman.
The earlier call, made to a non-emergency police line by Zimmerman, caught the defendant using profanities that were repeated by the prosecution to try to show he acted with spite, ill-will and hatred, the benchmarks for a second-degree murder conviction.
“Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away,” assistant state attorney John Guy said as he began his opening argument on the first day of the trial. “Those were the words in that grown man’s mouth as he followed in the dark a 17-year-old boy that he didn’t know.”
He concluded by telling the jury: “George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted to.”
O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lead attorney, worked hard to counter the state’s portrayal of his client as an overzealous, angry vigilante who was “fed up” after a series of burglaries and who became a self-appointed guardian of the community.
“There is not one witness to suggest that the guy is who they want you to believe he is, that neighbourhood watch cop wannabe crazy rider walking the neighbourhood looking for someone to harass,” O’Mara said.
Instead, he argued, Martin was the aggressor, emerging from the darkness to break Zimmerman’s nose with a sucker punch and smashing his head on a concrete pavement, forcing him to fire the single shot from his 9mm semi-automatic pistol to save his life.
He used a number of props to make his points, including a life-size mannequin that he wrestled with theatrically on the courtroom floor and a slab of cement he dumped in front of the jury box to represent the “weapon” he said Martin used, proving he was not unarmed.
O’Mara insisted Zimmerman had not disobeyed the police dispatcher’s instruction not to follow Martin.
Fellow defence attorney West proved the most colourful and controversial character during the trial, opening his case with a questionable knock-knock joke about Zimmerman’s notoriety and clashing frequently with the judge.
He also appeared in a photograph posted to Instagram by his daughter Molly showing the family enjoying a “celebration” ice cream after opening statements. The accompanying caption “we beat stupidity” and hashtag #dadkilledit prompted the state attorney’s office to demand an inquiry.
Benjamin Crump, lawyer for the Martin family, expressed thanks to supporters and prosecutors. Visibly shaken by the verdict, he said: “To everybody who put their hoodies up, to everybody who said ‘I am Trayvon’, his family express their heartfelt gratitude for helping them these past 17 months.”
Crump said that the daughter of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, Dr Bernice King, had sent him a message that read: “Today is a defining moment for the status of my father’s dream. Whatever the Zimmerman verdict is, in the words of my father we must conduct ourselves on higher plane of dignity and discipline.”
He added: “Trayvon Martin will forever remain in the annals of history next to Medgar Evers an Emmett Till as symbols for the fight for equal justice for all.” He finished his remarks with an appeal for calm. “For Trayvon to remain in peace, we must all be peaceful,” he said.
Ben Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, issued a statement condemning the acquittal. “We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict. We stand with Trayvon’s family, and we are called to act,” he said, in reference to plans to pursue a civil case against Zimmerman over Martin’s death.
The group’s chairman, Roslyn Brock, said: “Today, justice failed Trayvon Martin and his family. We call for the Justice Department to conduct an inquiry into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin.”
Legal proceedings are still active against Zimmerman’s wife. Shellie Zimmerman faces a perjury charge for alleging lying at her husband’s bail hearing last summer over the state of the couple’s finances, pleading poverty soon after they raised $130,000 through donations to his online defence fund.
O’Mara has said that fighting the murder charge effectively bankrupted the couple, who have relied on friends for food and clothes for Zimmerman to wear at his trial.