A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman on Saturday for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, setting free a man who had become a polarizing figure in the national debate over racial profiling and self-defense laws.
The panel of six women deliberated more than 16 hours over two days until nearly 10 p.m. on Saturday (0200 GMT Sunday) before delivering the verdict, which drew immediate condemnation from some civil rights groups.
Zimmerman appeared stoned-faced as the verdict was announced, but then showed a slight smile of relief. His parents embraced each other and his wife was tearful.
“I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful,” said his attorney Don West. “As happy as I am for George Zimmerman, I’m thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
Outside the courthouse, the decision drew angry shouts from some of the dozens of demonstrators who had gathered during the day in support of Martin’s family.
Martin’s parents were not in the court during the reading of the verdict. But his father, Tracy Martin, later tweeted that his son would have been proud of the fight put up for him.
“Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered,” he wrote. “Together can make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Zimmerman, 29, who is white and Hispanic, said Martin, 17, attacked him on the night of February 26, 2012, in the central Florida town of Sanford. Prosecutors contend the neighborhood watch volunteer in his gated community was a “wannabe cop” who tracked down the teenager and shot him without justification.
The jury could have convicted him of second-degree murder, which would have carried a sentence of up to life in prison, or manslaughter. The jurors, who remain anonymous, declined to speak to the press.
“We call immediately for the Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin. This case has re-energized the movement to end racial profiling in theUnited States.”
Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson tweeted within minutes of the acquittal: “Avoid violence, it will lead to more tragedies. Find a way for self construction not deconstruction in this time of despair.”
CASE DREW PROTESTS, SCRUTINY
But he walked free for more than six weeks after the shooting, because police believed his assertion of self-defense, triggering protests and cries of injustice across the country.
Reaction around the country also appeared peaceful in the hours after the verdict.
In San Francisco, news video footage showed a few hundred protesters marching through the middle of a street, with some holding signs and others raising their fists in the air. Police vehicles followed them on the sidelines of the march.
Copyright © 2013, Reuters