The jury returned a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, a case that sparked protest and debate nationwide.
UPDATED: George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager last year, was found not guilty of second-degree murder late Saturday.
The verdict, from a jury of six women who deliberated over two days, was announced at 10 p.m. ET. Jurors also had the option of convicting him of the lesser crime of manslaughter.
In the courtroom, Zimmerman’s family held hands across a row and cried. Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read. Their lawyer, Benjamin Crump, said in interviews earlier this week that the parents were praying and had sought “peaceful justice.”
On Twitter, Martin’s mother shared passages from the bible and wrote: ”Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!!”
Tracy Martin wrote: “God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS.”
Outside the courthouse, residents had gathered through the evening waiting for word from inside. When the verdict came, reaction was muted but MSNBC’s Craig Melvin reported that some had chanted “the system has failed us.”
Zimmerman, 29, plead not-guilty and said he was acting in self-defense when he shot the unarmed Martin, 17, in the chest during an altercation in a gated community of Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26. 2012.
He was not charged for more than six tumultuous weeks in which the case generated large protests in several cities, turned a hooded sweatshirt like the one Martin wore into a symbol of solidarity, and drew the attention of President Obama, who said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” On twitter, the hashtag #hoodiesup— a reference of solidarity with Martin— was trending worldwide after the verdict.
As debate over race, guns and Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law swirled, a special prosecutor appointed by the governor announced April 11, 2012 that Zimmerman was being charged with second-degree murder–a move that his supporters said was meant to quell the public outcry.
When the trial unfolded more than a year later, prosecutors argued the volunteer neighborhood watchman was a wannabe cop who “profiled” Martin as the teen walked back from buying Skittles at a 7-Eleven, and then followed him against the advice of the police dispatcher he called to report a suspicious person.
In closing arguments Friday, prosecutors presented an image of Martin’s lifeless body to the jury. “Ask yourself,” prosecutor John Guy said: “who lost the fight?” It was Martin, Guy said, not Zimmerman, who should have been afraid.
“That child had every right to do what he was doing, walking home. That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him, first in his car and then on foot. And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?”
The defense told jurors that Zimmerman was just doing his civic duty when he was ambushed by Martin, punched in the face and slammed repeatedly into concrete before he fired a single shot that pierced the teen’s heart.
“That’s cement. That is a sidewalk. And that is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home,” O’Mara said.
“The suggestion by the state that that’s not a weapon, that that can’t hurt somebody, that that can’t cause great bodily injury … is disgusting.”
Martin’s death and the trial divided Americans along racial lines since the shooting first became national news, drawing the attention of the American people, political pundits, and even the president. The case has also divided along political lines, with many liberals seeing Martin as a victim of racial profiling and many conservatives hailing Zimmerman as an engaged citizen trying to defend his neighborhood.
Dramatic testimony from Rachel Jeantel, a young black woman and the last person to speak to Martin, brought attention to some of the intangible and uncomfortable undertones at the trial.
Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s and one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, spent two days on the witness stand and more than five hours being cross-examined by Zimmerman’s defense team. But it’s mostly the style—not necessarily the substance—of her testimony that fueled the public conversation.
Some members of the media, the Twitterati and other online outlets criticized the 19-year-old for her arguably unpolished performance, citing everything from her personal appearance and facial expressions to her command of the English language.
The exchanges between her and defense attorney Don West seemed tense at times. He picked apart some discrepancies between past depositions and her court testimony, such as why she didn’t attend the funeral. She blurted out, “That’s retarded, sir,” after the defense suggested Martin attacked Zimmerman.
Zimmerman’s defense team had sent a parade of witnesses to the stand, seeking to paint a humanizing portrait of their client as someone who tutored children, struggled with his weight, and needed help learning how to tie a Windsor knot.
Most of the first full day of defense testimony focused on whether or not a voice heard screaming on the 911 call made by a witness to police belongs to Martin or Zimmerman. One by one, defense witnesses testified that the voice heard screaming for help on the call was Zimmerman. Among them were Mark and Sondra Osterman, who wrote a book defending Martin’s killing as an act of self-defense and said they are donating the proceeds to help pay for Zimmerman’s legal defense.
The prosecution has sought to portray Zimmerman as a law enforcement would-be who followed Martin against the advice of a police dispatcher, believing the teenager was “up to no good.”
“We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law,” Sheriff Donald Eslinger said.
Tracy Connor from NBC News contributed to this report
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.