A jury of six women found former neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in a racially charged case that has raised new questions about racial profiling and self defense.
At 9:57 p.m. Jurors returned to the hushed courtroom while judge Debra Nelson cautioned onlookers against making any outbursts.
One by one the jurors were polled as to the verdict. Zimmerman showed no emotion as the verdict was read. His wife Shellie wept in the courtroom at the outcome.
“Obviously we are ecstatic with the results,” said defense attorney Mark O'Mara, who described his client as "very, very happy" with the verdict. “George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense. I’m glad that the jury saw it that way.”
Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, tweeted: "Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!"
His father, Tracy Martin, tweeted: "Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered. I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY."
Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman, Jr. told CNN that his family felt exhonarated and that George was still processing the verdict and his life ahead.
"He has always feared for his safety," Robert Zimmerman said. "We have always feared for his safety as a family. Clearly he's a free man in the eyes of the court but he's going to be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his life."
Though disappointed, prosecutors did not criticize the jury's decision.
"We put this case in front of a jury and that leads me to thanking the jury for the 16 hours of deliberation that they took to go over all of the facts and circumstances," said Florida State Attorney Angela Corey at a news conference following the verdict. "What we always believed was that this was a case of details that had to be analyzed very, very carefully."
Proscutor Bernie de la Rionda added, "I am disappinted as we are with the verdict but we accept it. We live in a great country that has a great criminal justice system. It is not perfect but it is the best in the world and we respect the jury's verdict."
Defense attorney Don West was more blunt, calling the prosecution of Zimmerman "disgraceful."
"I'm thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty," he said. "For that we are eternally grateful but it makes me sad too, that it took this long, under these circumstances to finally get justice."
Late Saturday afternoon jurors stopped their work to ask the judge a question about manslaughter.
"May we please have clarification on the instructions regarding manslaughter," Nelson read from the jurors' note before a courtroom that had rapidly filled up with lawyers, reporters and members of the families of Martin and Zimmerman.
Ahead of the verdict Conservative talk show host Armstrong Williams told Newsmax TV
that people should learn from the O.J. Simpson murder trial nearly 18 years ago and "act like Americans" if Zimmerman was set free.
Meanwhile, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz also told Newsmax TV
that prosecutors should be charged with "prosecutorial misconduct" for suggesting Zimmerman planned the fatal shooting of Martin.
Nelson responded to the note by asking the jury to pose a more specific question about manslaughter.
To convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder, which carries the possibility of a life prison sentence, the jury had to find Zimmerman acted with ill will, spite or hatred.
In the case of manslaughter, jurors had to find that Zimmerman committed an act "that was not merely negligent, justified or excusable and which caused death." The crime carries a prison sentence of up to 30 years in Florida.
Ronald Fulton, 50, Martin's wheelchair-bound uncle who was close to the slain 17-year-old, described waiting for the verdict as difficult.
"It's like everybody wants to know the next step of what's happening, and that's why it's so tense," Fulton told Reuters in a phone interview from his Miami home prior to the verdict being announced.
"If he is acquitted . . . what would be the recourse from that?" Fulton asked. "These things are weighing on me heavily."
Two camps of onlookers had assembled outside the Seminole County Courthouse on Saturday to await the verdict.
"He deserves some respect and appreciation," Casey David Kole Sr., 66, shouted about the former neighborhood watch leader prior to the verdict "It's a tragedy."
Patricia Dalton, 60, yelled back: "It's a tragedy that could have been avoided!"
Dalton, like most of the 100 or so people assembled outside the suburban Orlando courthouse, said she was there in support of the family of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teen from Miami who Zimmerman fatally shot last year.
In Saturday's strong Florida sun, some people wore hoodies, as Martin had when he died.
One woman lay in the grass, her arms spread, in a re-creation of Martin's death. Those in the smaller pro-Zimmerman camp held small signs, saying things like "We love you George" and "George got hit you must acquit."
Joseph Uy of Longwood was among an even smaller group: the few who said they had no opinion on whether Zimmerman was guilty. He said he came because he was "just curious."
"I'm neutral," he said, while cradling his three tiny Chihuahuas in his arms.
By mid-afternoon, people rallied in the heat and chanted slogans as a looming thundercloud threatened a downpour.
"Justice for Trayvon," some shouted. Others yelled, "Convict George Zimmerman."
Last year, people protested in Sanford and across the country when authorities waited 44 days before arresting Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic.
Over three weeks, the jury heard dueling portraits of the neighborhood watch captain: a cop wannabe who took the law into his own hands or a well-meaning volunteer who shot Martin because he feared for his life.
Zimmerman, 29, claimed self-defense in the February 2012 confrontation in a gated community where Martin was visiting his father and father's fiancee.
Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, but the jury also was allowed to consider manslaughter.
The judge's decision to allow that consideration was thought to be a potential blow to the defense, giving jurors who weren't convinced the shooting amounted to murder a way to hold Zimmerman responsible for the killing.
The sequestered jury of six women had to sort through conflicting testimony from police, neighbors, friends, and family members.
Jurors deliberated for three and a half hours when they decided to stop Friday evening. They reconvened Saturday morning, and deliberated through lunch and dinner for a total of 16 hours and 20 minutes.
Jurors had been sequestered, and their identities kept secret — referred to only by number.
Police and civic leaders pleaded for calm in Sanford and across the country ahead of the verdict.
"There is no party in this case who wants to see any violence," Seminole County Sheriff Don Eslinger said prior to the verdict. "We have an expectation upon this announcement that our community will continue to act peacefully."
In New York on Saturday, the Rev. Al Sharpton said that no matter the verdict, any demonstrations that follow must be peaceful.
"We do not want to smear Trayvon Martin's name with violence," the civil rights leader said. "He is a victim of violence."
Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Martin's family, said the parents are emotional but doing as well as expected as they await a verdict.
"(Jurors) staying out longer and considering the evidence and testimony is a good thing for us arriving at a just verdict," Crump said.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
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