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Jury acquits Zimmerman in Florida killing

Verdict ends case that spurred national debate on racial profiling

Demonstrators reacted to news of the not-guilty verdict outside the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center in Sanford.Brian Blanco/EPA

SANFORD, Fla. — George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, igniting a national debate on racial profiling and civil rights, was found not guilty late Saturday of second- degree murder. He also was acquitted of manslaughter, a lesser charge.

After three weeks of testimony, the six-woman jury rejected the prosecution’s contention that Zimmerman had deliberately pursued Martin because he assumed the hoodie-clad teenager was a criminal and instigated the fight that led to his death.

Zimmerman said he shot Martin on Feb. 26, 2012, in self-defense after the teenager knocked him to the ground, punched him, and slammed his head repeatedly against the sidewalk. In finding him not guilty of murder or manslaughter, the jury agreed that Zimmerman could have been justified in shooting Martin because he feared great bodily harm or death.

The jury, which had been sequestered since June 24, deliberated 16 hours and 20 minutes over two days. The six female jurors, all but one of them white, entered the quiet, tense courtroom, several looking exhausted, their faces drawn and grim. After the verdict was read, each assented, one by one, and quietly, their agreement with the verdict.

The case began in the small city of Sanford as a routine homicide but soon evolved into a civil rights cause examining racial profiling and its consequences and setting off a broad discussion of race relations in America. Martin, with his gray hooded sweatshirt and his Skittles — the candy he was carrying — became its catalyst.

Trayvon Martin (left) was fatally shot in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012. George Zimmerman asserted self-defense.

Trayvon Martin (left) was fatally shot in Sanford, Fla., in February 2012. George Zimmerman asserted self-defense.

Even President Obama weighed in a month after the shooting, expressing sympathy for Martin’s family and urging a thorough investigation. “If I had a son,” Obama said, “he’d look like Trayvon.”

Saturday night, when the verdict was read, Zimmerman, 29, smiled slightly. His wife, Shellie, and several of his friends wept, and his parents kissed and embraced.

Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who lost their son a few weeks after his 17th birthday, were not in the courtroom.

The teen’s father reacted on Twitter: ‘‘Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY.’’

His mother also said on Twitter that she appreciated the prayers from supporters.

‘‘Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have,’’ she wrote.

Defense attorney Mark O’Mara said they were “ecstatic” with the verdict. ‘‘George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense.’’

O’Mara said his client is aware he has to be cautious and protective of his safety.

‘‘There still is a fringe element that wants revenge,’’ O’Mara said. ‘‘They won’t listen to a verdict of not guilty.’’

Another member of his defense team, Don West, said he was pleased the jury ‘‘kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.’’

Rosie Barron, 50, and Andrew Perkins, 55, both black residents of Sanford, stood in the parking lot of the courthouse and wept.

‘‘I at least thought he was going to get something, something,’’ Barron said.

“He killed somebody and got away with murder,’’ Perkins shouted, looking toward the courthouse. ‘‘He ain’t getting no probation or nothing.’’

After the verdict, Judge Debra S. Nelson, of Seminole County Court, 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.

Outside the courthouse, perhaps 100 people who had been gathering through the night, their numbers building as the hours passed, began pumping their fists in the air, waving placards and chanting “No justice, no peace!” Sheriff’s deputies lined up inside the courthouse, watching the crowd, who were chanting peacefully, but intently.

The shooting also brought attention to Florida’s expansive self-defense laws. The laws allow someone with a reasonable fear of great bodily harm or death to use lethal force, even if retreating from danger is an option. In court, the gunman is given the benefit of the doubt.

The outcry began after the police initially decided not to arrest Zimmerman, who is half-Peruvian, as they investigated the shooting. Martin, 17, had no criminal record and was on a snack run, returning to the house where he was staying as a guest.

Six weeks later, Zimmerman was arrested, but only after civil rights leaders championed the case and demonstrators, many wearing hoodies, marched in Sanford, Miami, and elsewhere to demand action.

“Justice for Trayvon!” they shouted.

The pressure prompted Governor Rick Scott to remove local prosecutors from the case and appoint the state attorney from Jacksonville, Angela B. Corey. She charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder. The tumult also led to the firing of the Sanford police chief.

“We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the NAACP, after the verdict was announced. “We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”

O’Mara disputed the notion that Zimmerman engaged in racial profiling. “His history was not as a racist,” he said.

From the start, prosecutors faced a difficult task in proving second-degree murder. That charge required Zimmerman to have evinced a “depraved mind,” brimming with ill will, hatred, spite or evil intent, when he shot Martin.

Manslaughter, which under Florida law is typically added as a lesser charge if either side requests it, was a lower bar. Jurors needed to decide only that Zimmerman put himself in a situation that culminated in Martin’s death.

But because of Florida’s laws, prosecutors 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.

Even after three weeks of testimony, the fight between Martin and Zimmerman on that rainy night was a muddle, fodder for reasonable doubt. It remained unclear who had started it, who screamed for help, who threw the first punch, and at what point Zimmerman drew his gun. There were no witnesses to the shooting.

In the end, prosecutors were left with Zimmerman’s version of events.

The defense also had one piece of irrefutable evidence, photographs of Zimmerman’s injuries — a bloody nose along with lumps and two cuts on his head. It indicated that there had been a fight and that Zimmerman had been harmed.

Prosecutors built their case around Zimmerman’s persona — a “wannabe cop” — his wrong assumptions, and his words.

Zimmerman, they said, was so concerned about burglaries in his complex that when he spotted Martin, an unfamiliar face, he immediately “profiled” him as a criminal. He picked up his phone and reported him to the police.

Then he made the first in a string of bad choices, they said. He got out of the car with a gun on his waist; he disregarded a police dispatcher’s advice not to follow Martin and he chased the teenage, engaged in a fight, and shot him in the heart.

To stave off an arrest, he lied to the police, prosecutors said, embellishing his story to try to flesh out his self-defense claim.

“Punks,” Zimmerman said to the police dispatcher after he spotted Martin, adding a profanity. “They always get away,” he said at another point in the conversation, a reference to would-be burglars.

On these words, prosecutors hung their case of ill will, hatred, and spite toward Martin.

“This defendant was sick and tired of it,” Bernie de la Rionda, the chief prosecutor, said in his closing statement. “He was going to be what he wanted to be — a police officer.”

But no one saw the shooting; witnesses saw and heard only parts of the struggle, and provided conflicting accounts.

And there was not a “shred of evidence” that Zimmerman was not returning to his car when Martin “pounced,” defense lawyers said.

The prosecution’s witnesses did not always help their case. Rachel Jeantel, 19, who was talking with Martin on his cellphone shortly before he was shot, proved problematic. Her testimony was critical for the prosecution because she said that Martin was being followed by Zimmerman and that he was scared.

But Jeantel might have damaged her credibility by acknowledging she had lied about her age and why she did not attend Martin’s wake. She also testified that she softened her initial account of her chat with Martin for fear of upsetting Fulton, who sat next to her, weeping, during Jeantel’s first interview with prosecutors.

Prosecutors also were not helped by the police and crime scene technicians, who made some mistakes in the case. Martin’s sweatshirt, for example, was improperly bagged, which might have degraded DNA evidence.

Typically, police testimony boosts the state’s case. Here, the chief police investigator, Chris Serino, told jurors that he believed Zimmerman, despite contradictions in his statements.

Still, prosecutors had emotion on their side — the heart-wrenching narrative of a teenager “minding his own business” who was gunned down as he walked home with a pocketful of Skittles.

Through it all, though, the defense chipped away at the prosecution’s case.

And a prominent forensic pathologist who is an expert in gunshot wounds testified that the trajectory of the bullet was consistent with Martin leaning over Zimmerman when the gun was fired.

“Let him go back,” O’Mara said to the jury, referring to Zimmerman, “and get back to his life.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.