SANFORD, Fla. – A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter Saturday night in a case that alternately fascinated and appalled large segments of a spellbound nation.
After the jury filed out of the courtroom, the defendant’s brother, Robert Zimmerman, sitting in the second row, hugged his mother, Gladys Zimmerman. The row became a swirl of tears and hugs. A man sitting next to Zimmerman’s brother slapped his hands together in joy and sobbed.
“He killed a young 17-year-old. He didn’t have to die like that. He should be in prison for life,” said Mattie Aikens, 30, of Sanford. “So you’re telling me he’s gonna walk home? Holding Skittles and Arizona tea. This is not even fair! Are you serious?”
The saga of Zimmerman’s shooting of an unarmed African American teenager named Trayvon Martin whittled into the American vernacular, transforming “hoodie” sweatshirts into cultural markers and provoking a painful re-examination of race relations in this country.
Even the racial and ethnic identity of Zimmerman – he has a white father and a Hispanic mother – demanded a reordering of conventional paradigms. He was frequently referred to as a “white Hispanic,” a term that, for some, reflected a newly blended America and, for others, felt like an uncomfortable middle ground.
Attorneys fought over Zimmerman’s fate in a heavily guarded and windowless fifth-floor courtroom, calling more than 50 witnesses during three weeks of testimony before a sequestered six-woman jury. Afternoon thunderstorms sometimes shook the building, but the participants could see nary a drop of rain as they relived the night in February 2012 when Zimmerman killed Trayvon after spotting the 17-year-old walking through his gated community in the rain.
A parallel trial seemed to be taking place outside that cloistered space, with running debate on cable television and the Internet spurred by live-streaming coverage of the trial that effectively turned millions of Americans into quasi-jurors armed with every minute detail of the case. Others jammed into the small courtroom, lining up each morning for the coveted 24 seats allotted to the public.
Zimmerman, 29, watched with an unshakably neutral expression, sitting in his customary position at the defense table in ill-fitting blazers that an older friend bought for him to wear at the trial. Once, he had dreamed of becoming a policeman or a prosecutor, and at times, he seemed to be observing the proceedings with the detachment of a moderately engaged student.
Only at breaks, when the jury had left the courtroom, did he sometimes let his blank stare crack a bit. He would circle the defense table giving congratulatory handshakes to his attorneys before being escorted by a bodyguard and court security officers to a waiting room down the hall.
Behind Zimmerman, on the opposite side of the courtroom, sat Trayvon’s parents – Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. The father, whom Trayvon was visiting in Sanford on the night of his death, watched stoically, his emotions measured best by the slowing or accelerating speed of his jaw muscles as he grinded through packs of gum.
The images on the courtroom screen and those painted by the attorneys were sometimes too much to bear. Fulton, her hair pulled tightly into a bun on top of her head, stood and hurried out of the courtroom on Friday when Zimmerman’s defense attorney Mark O’Mara showed a photo of her son in death. She often turned away when close-ups of the bullet that pierced her son’s heart flickered onto the screen. She wiped away tears during closing arguments.
Zimmerman’s parents were banned from the court during testimony because they were witnesses but took seats just a few steps away from Fulton across the aisle during closing arguments.
Trayvon’s parents were also witnesses but they were allowed to watch each day because they were immediate family members of the deceased.
The two sets of parents had dueled inside the courtroom and outside it. Each parent testified that they heard their son crying for help in the background of a key 911 call.
On April 11 – the 1-year anniversary of Zimmerman’s arrest – his mother, Gladys Zimmerman, issued an open letter, saying her son had been taken into custody “solely to placate the masses.” She was referring to large racially charged demonstrations, including a “Million Hoodie March,” organized to protest the initial decision of local authorities not to charge Zimmerman with a crime. Trayvon’s mother responded with a statement calling the assertion of Zimmerman’s mother “disingenuous and disrespectful.”
For all the talk of race outside the courtroom, its role inside the trial was muted – more subtext than central theme. Debra Steinberg Nelson, the stern judge overseeing the case, ruled that prosecutors could say Zimmerman “profiled” Trayvon but could not say he “racially profiled” the teen. The decision disappointed some African-American leaders here who had hoped the action inside the courtroom might deepen the national conversation about race that was happening outside the building.
Nelson, a former prosecutor who was appointed to the bench in 1999 by then-Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, sparred repeatedly with Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West. In one of the trial’s signal moments, Nelson stormed off the bench shortly before 10 p.m. while West was still talking, abruptly ending a marathon evidence hearing.
Nelson ruled that jurors would not be allowed to see text messages found on Trayvon’s cellphone about fighting and guns because they could not be authenticated. “Why you always fighting?” a message from one of Trayvon’s friend’s said, according to a defense expert.
West had been eager to introduce the texts to further the defense claim that Trayvon was the aggressor in the fight and that Zimmerman, whom a gym owner described as “soft” and unathletic, was overpowered by the tall and slender teenager.
O’Mara and West, a former rock dee-jay with a shaved head and an imposing courtroom presence, succeeded in turning many of the state’s key witnesses into assets for the defense. They got John Good, a neighbor, to testify that he saw a figure in dark clothes (Trayvon’s hoodie was dark) straddling another person and doing a mixed martial arts-style “ground and pound” while “raining down blows.” They also got lead police investigator Chris Serino to testify that he believed Zimmerman’s self-defense account.
Includes reporting by the Orlando Sentinel.