George Zimmerman Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Case
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George Zimmerman walked free from a Florida courtroom late on Saturday after a jury acquitted the neighbourhood watch leader of murdering Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in a violent encounter at his gated housing development 17 months ago.
Zimmerman, 29, smiled briefly and shook the hands of his lawyers Mark O'Mara and Don West after the verdict from the jury of six women was read.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of the 17-year-old whom Zimmerman shot and killed on the night of 26 February last year, were not in court to hear the decision.
The unanimous verdict accepting Zimmerman's argument that he shot Martin in self-defence came after more than 16 hours of deliberations by the panel at the Seminole County criminal justice centre in Sanford. They had sifted through the testimony of 56 witnesses and hours of closing arguments presented by lawyers from both sides during the three-week trial.
"You have no further business with this court," Judge Debra Nelson told Zimmerman, informing him that he was free to go and that his GPS tracking bracelet would be removed. Zimmerman's wife Shellie broke down in tears and sobbed into a pink scarf, then beamed widely as she hugged her husband's parents, Robert and Gladys.
The acquittal was greeted with cheers and angry shouts outside the courthouse, where dozens of banner-carrying supporters of the Martin family had gathered through the day.
Police stepped in to remove a vocal protestor from the gathering but the protests remained largely peaceful.
Teams of officers from the Sanford police department and the Seminole County sheriff's office kept a close eye on the demonstrators, who included a smaller number calling for Zimmerman to be found not guilty.
Analysts said the verdict reflected a weak, circumstantial case put by the prosecutors.
"We were able to have a fair hearing and an open trial but this is not a time for jubilance, it's a time for reflection," said Mark NeJame, a prominent Orlando attorney who turned down the chance to represent Zimmerman last year.
"A young man is dead. This is just a tragedy and we need to figure out a way to do better."
Zimmerman, who was released without charge on the night of the shooting, was arrested in April last year, 44 days after the shooting, when Florida's governor, Rick Scott, appointed a special prosecutor to re-examine the circumstances of the case.
Martin, who lived in Miami, was walking back to the house of his father's fiancée at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community carrying a soft drink and sweets he had bought at a local convenience store. Zimmerman, who worked as a mortgage underwriter, said he spotted the hoodie-wearing youth as he was on his way to buy groceries, then called police to report a "suspicious male". Somehow, the two ended up in a fight.
The case hinged on the conflicting testimony of witnesses and the key issue of whose screams were heard on a recording of a 911 call made by one of Zimmerman's neighbours, which also captured the fatal shot.
Martin's mother, father and brother all testified that they were certain it was the teenager who was pleading for his life. Zimmerman's parents and a numbers of friends and neighbours took the stand to insist that it was Zimmerman.
The earlier call, made to a non-emergency police line by Zimmerman, caught the defendant using profanities that were repeated by the prosecution to try to show he acted with spite, ill-will and hatred, the benchmarks for a second-degree murder conviction.