SANFORD, Fla. — George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, igniting a national debate on racial profiling and civil rights, was found not guilty on Saturday of the second-degree murder of Trayvon Martin.
He also was acquitted of manslaughter, a lesser charge the jury was allowed to consider.
The jury of six women, all but one of them white, returned the verdict after more than 16 hours of deliberations over two days. Zimmerman stood stone-faced as the verdict was read. He flashed a smile when the jurors left the courtroom. His wife, Shellie, was in tears, and his family hugged.
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who lost their son a few weeks after his 17th birthday, were not in the courtroom.
The jurors considered nearly three weeks of often wildly conflicting testimony over who was the aggressor on the rainy night that Martin was shot while walking through the gated townhouse community where his father lived.
Local police had accepted Zimmerman's explanation that he acted in self-defense under the state's Stand Your Ground law, but a special state prosecutor charged the neighborhood watch volunteer with second-degree murder after six weeks of protests and demonstrations by civil rights leaders across the nation.
Defense attorneys said the case was classic self-defense; that Martin had 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.
State Attorney Angela 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.
After the verdict, Seminole County Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman, who has been in hiding and wears a bulletproof vest outside, that his bond was revoked and his GPS monitor would be cut off. “You have no further business with the court,” she said.
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 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 Martin. 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 and in several cities around the country, 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 when he was shot. 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.
“This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms,” Corey said after the verdict. “We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”
One of the few times that race was brought up during the trial was the testimony of Rachel Jeantel, the Miami teen who was talking to Martin by phone moments before he was shot. She testified that Martin said he was being followed by someone he described as a creepy white man as he walked through the neighborhood.
The jurors had to sort out clashing testimony from 56 witnesses in all, including police, neighbors, friends and family members.
From the start, prosecutors faced a difficult task in proving second-degree murder. A conviction on that charge would have required prosecutors to prove that Zimmerman evinced a “depraved mind,” brimming with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent, when he shot Martin.
To win a manslaughter conviction, prosecutors would have had to convince the jury that Zimmerman killed without lawful justification.
But because of Florida's laws, prosecutors also had to persuade jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense. A shortage of evidence in the case made that a high hurdle, legal experts said.
While defense lawyers were elated with the verdict, they also expressed anger that Zimmerman spent 16 months filled with fear and trauma when all he did was defend himself.
“The prosecution of George Zimmerman was a disgrace,” said Don West, one of Zimmerman's lawyers. “I am thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
“This was a tragedy for both families,” defense attorney Mark O'Mara repeatedly said.
This report includes material from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press.
Questions jurors considered in Zimmerman trial
» Whose screams are on the 911 calls?
Trayvon Martin's family testified that it was the Miami teen screaming for help; George Zimmerman's family and friends told jurors that it was him. On a 911 call, the screams stop with the gunshot.
» During the scuffle, who was on top?
Zimmerman's former neighbor Jonathan Good said he saw a person in dark clothing straddling someone in red or white clothing. Neighbors Selma Mora and Jayne Surdyka said the person on top got up after the shooting.
» How did the position of Martin's arms change?
After Zimmerman fired his gun, he says, he got on top of Martin and spread his arms. A photo taken moments later shows Martin's arms under his body.
» Did Zimmerman act in self-defense?
The jury was told that deadly force was justified if Zimmerman reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.
» Did Zimmerman act with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent?
Prosecutors argued that profanities Zimmerman uttered while he watched Martin were evidence of ill will and hatred.
— The Associated Press