As a jury weighs the fate of accused murderer George Zimmerman, leaders in Sanford, Fla., and beyond are pleading for calm but also preparing for violence as one of the most racially charged trials in recent U.S. history draws to a close.
The six-woman jury that will decide Mr. Zimmerman's fate resumed deliberations at 9 a.m. Saturday, having already spent more than three hours mulling the case Friday afternoon and evening. Mr. Zimmerman is charged with the February 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, with prosecutors alleging the defendant — a Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer and criminal justice student — profiled the black victim and took the law into his own hands.
Mr. Zimmerman's defense team argues it was Martin who initiated the confrontation and that their client acted in self defense and 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, analysts say, 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, whether Mr. Zimmerman is acquitted or found guilty and sent to prison.
"If Zimmerman is convicted there should not be inappropriate celebrations because a young man lost his life," said 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."
But experts say the case and its verdict — which could see Mr. Zimmerman acquitted or convicted of second-degree murder or manslaughter — will have clear reverberations and a lasting impact on the nation.
"This case is going to be one of those watershed moments in our history when it comes to racial relations. If there is an acquittal, I do think there will be an outcry from a number people not just in the black community but also among people who I would say sympathize with some of the struggles for racial equality in this country," said Montre Carodine, a professor at the University of Alabama Law School who specializes in race relations. "Whichever way it goes, there's going to be an outcry from the side that loses. I don't think that's something we can avoid."
Law enforcement reportedly has set up "First Amendment zones" outside the Sanford courtroom and in other cities across Florida, where protesters will be allowed to express their feelings about the verdict.
On Friday afternoon, before the case went to the jury, Mr. Zimmerman's attorneys and state prosecutors made their last-ditch appeals to the six women who will decide the case.
"If it hasn't been proven, it's just not there. You can't fill in the gaps. You can't connect the dots. You're not allowed to," said defense attorney Mark O'Mara, hammering home the notion that there is simply too much confusion and doubt surrounding the altercation between Mr. Zimmerman and Martin to conclude that the defendant is a murderer.
The state responded by again painting Martin as the innocent victim who was simply walking home when he was confronted by Mr. Zimmerman.
"That child had every right to be where he was. 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," prosecutor John Guy said during closing arguments. "And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?"
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