July 14 (Bloomberg) -- George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, was found not guilty by a Florida jury in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.
In a case that has drawn national attention over its implications for race and guns, yesterday’s decision was made by a six-woman jury in the city of Sanford that spent two days weighing whether the shooting of Martin was a crime or an act of self-defense.
After the verdict was announced at about 10 p.m. local time, Seminole County Circuit Judge Debra Nelson dismissed the jury and told Zimmerman he was free to go.
“The prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful,” Don West, an attorney for the defense, said at a press conference after the verdict. “I’m thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
During three weeks of trial, jurors heard contrasting stories of the events in the Florida townhouse complex on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, that left Martin dead from a single gunshot through the heart.
Prosecutors argued that Zimmerman profiled, pursued and then murdered Martin, who was carrying a can of iced tea, a bag of Skittles and $40 in cash at the time. Zimmerman, 29, told police in videotaped statements that he acted in self-defense after Martin, 17, punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and threatened to kill him.
The killing of the unarmed black youth by a man whose father is white and mother is Hispanic sparked protests in several U.S. cities led by civil rights figures such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. The anger followed the initial decision of law enforcement officials not to arrest Zimmerman, citing state laws on self-defense, including the Stand Your Ground law.
“Am I disappointed? Yes, because I feel he was guilty,” Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda said at a press conference after the verdict. “Who was following who? Isn’t that what it comes down to? This is about a kid being followed by a stranger.”
Zimmerman’s acquittal prompted demonstrations late yesterday and early today in four cities in California, whose time zone is three hours behind Florida’s. The protests over the verdict ranged from a few dozen people in Sacramento to about 200 in Los Angeles, the Associated Press said, with vandalism and small fires reported by police in Oakland.
Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for the Martin family, urged calm after the decision. For Martin to be able to rest in peace, “we must all be peaceful,” Crump said at a press conference.
Barry Slotnick, a defense lawyer who successfully defended Bernhard Goetz, the New York “subway vigilante” charged with shooting four youths in 1984 who he said were intimidating him and demanding money, said prosecutors should never have charged Zimmerman.
“They only did it as a sop to public opinion,” Slotnick, of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney PC, said in an interview before the verdict.
Defense attorney West said he was disappointed with the length of the process.
“It makes me sad too that it took this long under these circumstances to finally get justice,” West said at the press conference after the verdict.
Nelson’s instructions to the jury covered justifiable use of deadly force, including Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people who feel threatened in a public place to “meet force with force.” The 2005 statute removed the obligation to retreat if possible to avoid a deadly clash.
“If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force,” Nelson told jurors.
The judge said Zimmerman could use deadly force if he reasonably believed it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm.
Zimmerman, who had a license to carry a concealed weapon, was charged with second-degree murder, which carries a possible life sentence. Nelson gave jurors the option of finding him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
The events that led to the shooting began when Zimmerman spotted Martin walking in his gated townhouse complex and called police to report a suspicious person. Martin, dressed that night in a hooded sweatshirt, was staying in the development at the home of his father’s girlfriend.
Zimmerman, who was driving to a Target store when he saw the youth, told police he got out of his vehicle to look for a street name to give the police dispatcher. As he walked back to his SUV, he said, Martin approached from behind and asked whether he had a problem. Zimmerman said he told him he did not.
Martin said, “Well, you do now,” and punched Zimmerman in the nose, according to a recording of Zimmerman’s Feb. 26, 2012, interview with police.
Zimmerman told officers that he fell and that Martin got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk. Police photographs show Zimmerman bleeding from the nose and back of the head.
Zimmerman told police that Martin covered his nose and mouth with his hands. Martin then told him, “You’re going to die tonight,” and reached for the 9 mm pistol, a Kel-Tec PF-9, that Zimmerman had holstered around his waist, according to Zimmerman.
Zimmerman said he got to the gun first and fired the hollow-point bullet into Martin’s chest.
The verdict shows that the jurors emphasized the struggle and not the events leading to it, such as Zimmerman following Martin, said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor now at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Los Angeles.
“The jury appears to be focusing on that singular moment when the trigger was pulled,” McRae said in a phone interview.
De la Rionda told jurors that Zimmerman was a police officer wannabe with martial arts training who profiled Martin as a criminal and then followed the youth after being told by a dispatcher to stop. De la Rionda played Zimmerman’s call to police to report Martin, highlighting Zimmerman’s remarks that criminals always get away.
Both sides referred to race in their closing arguments.
Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s lawyer, told jurors that the only people arrested for crimes in his client’s neighborhood were young black males. He also told jurors that when Zimmerman spotted Martin, the teenager was in front of a home that had been burglarized a few weeks earlier.
“George Zimmerman did nothing wrong,” O’Mara said after the verdict. “He was battered and beaten by a 17-year-old who thought he had to lash out violently.”
The prosecution asked jurors to consider how they would decide the case if the roles were reversed and it was Zimmerman who was shot dead by Martin while walking home in the rain wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
“This case is not about race, it’s about right and wrong, it’s that simple,” Assistant State Attorney John Guy told jurors.
The state’s case largely rested on whether jurors believed Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, who testified that she was on the phone with Martin, who told her he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.” She said the phone went dead after she heard Martin say “get off, get off.”
Jeantel testified for two days and was challenged by the defense for lying to police and Martin’s family about her age and other matters earlier in the case.
Zimmerman didn’t testify. His call to police the night of the shooting, as well as multiple interviews with police, were played for the jury repeatedly during the trial. Prosecutors also played an interview of Zimmerman by Fox News’s Sean Hannity in which Zimmerman said he had no regrets about the confrontation with Martin and shooting because it was “God’s plan.”
The evidence included a 911 phone call to police by a resident of the complex who heard fighting outside her door. During the call, screaming can be heard in the background. The screaming stops as a gun is fired.
Nelson barred testimony by prosecution experts who said the voice was Martin’s. Their methods were too unreliable to be used in the trial, she ruled.
The judge allowed friends and relatives of both Martin and Zimmerman to tell jurors who they believed was screaming. Martin’s and Zimmerman’s mother each testified that she recognized the voice pleading for help as her son’s.
“They simply never had an overwhelming case,” Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami, said in a phone interview, pointing out that the only eyewitness was the shooter, who claimed self-defense. “These are never easy.”
The case is State of Florida v. Zimmerman, 1712FO4573, Florida Circuit Court, 18th Judicial Circuit, Seminole County (Sanford).
To contact the reporters on this story: Christopher Boyd in the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in Sanford, Florida; Tom Schoenberg in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at email@example.com