A Florida jury late Saturday cleared George Zimmerman of any criminal charges in the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, rejecting the state’s case that the neighborhood watch volunteer had stalked and killed the unarmed black teenager.
And now a case that garnered the nation's attention and ignited a debate over race, profiling and neighborhood watches entered unchartered waters as police in Sanford and across the country braced for the possibility of protests and violence.
The six women jurors deliberated 15 hours over two days before rendering its verdict shortly after 10 p.m. EDT Saturday. The jury rejected prosecutor's case of second-degree murder, as well as a lesser charge of manslaughter.
Mr. Zimmerman, who argued he acted in self-defense in shooting Martin after the two engaged in a confrontation, barely reacted when the verdict was read then flashed a brief smile as he thanked his attorneys.
"We're ecstatic with the results," lead defense attorney Mark O'Mara declared after the verdict. "George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self-defense.
Prosecutors called Zimmerman a liar and portrayed him was a vigilante who had grown frustrated by break-ins in his neighborhood committed primarily by young black men. They made no apologies for bringing a second-degree murder charge, even after losing.
"We charged what we believed we could prove," State Attorney Angela Corey said.
Mr. Zimmerman’s defense team argued it was Trayvon Martin who initiated the clash and that their client drew his gun only as a last resort.
Martin’s death immediately captured national attention and sparked a heated debate over race relations and profiling in the U.S.
As the trial proceeded and the prosecution’s case appeared lackluster at best, fears of a potential backlash have grown.
Civil rights leaders, law enforcement officials and others in the past several days have appealed to the people of Florida and across the nation to remain calm, whatever the verdict.
“If Zimmerman is convicted there should not be inappropriate celebrations because a young man lost his life,” said the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. in a statement released Friday. “And if he is not convicted, we should avoid violence because it will only lead to more tragedies. Self-destruction is not the road to reconstruction.”
In Miami, nearly four hours south of Sanford, police are telling citizens that violence will not be tolerated.
"Riots are not acceptable, and riots are not expected,” said Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson said earlier this week, speaking from the pulpit of Miami’s Peaceful Zion Missionary Baptist Church, according to Miami’s CBS-4 TV.
Mr. Zimmerman’s family also released a statement earlier this week urging everyone to “pray for justice, pray for peace, pray for our country.”
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