George Zimmerman Acquitted in Trayvon Martin Case

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.

"Fucking punks. These assholes, they always get away," assistant state attorney John Guy said as he began his opening argument on the first day of the trial. "Those were the words in that grown man's mouth as he followed in the dark a 17-year-old boy that he didn't know."

He concluded by telling the jury: "George Zimmerman did not shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to. He shot him for the worst of all reasons, because he wanted to."

O'Mara, Zimmerman's lead attorney, worked hard to counter the state's portrayal of his client as an overzealous, angry vigilante who was "fed up" after a series of burglaries and who became a self-appointed guardian of the community.

"There is not one witness to suggest that the guy is who they want you to believe he is, that neighbourhood watch cop wannabe crazy rider walking the neighbourhood looking for someone to harass," O'Mara said.

Instead, he argued, Martin was the aggressor, emerging from the darkness to break Zimmerman's nose with a sucker punch and smashing his head on a concrete pavement, forcing him to fire the single shot from his 9mm semi-automatic pistol to save his life.

He used a number of props to make his points, including a life-size mannequin that he wrestled with theatrically on the courtroom floor and a slab of cement he dumped in front of the jury box to represent the "weapon" he said Martin used, proving he was not unarmed.

O'Mara insisted Zimmerman had not disobeyed the police dispatcher's instruction not to follow Martin.

Fellow defence attorney West proved the most colourful and controversial character during the trial, opening his case with a questionable knock-knock joke about Zimmerman's notoriety and clashing frequently with the judge.

He also appeared in a photograph posted to Instagram by his daughter Molly showing the family enjoying a "celebration" ice cream after opening statements. The accompanying caption "we beat stupidity" and hashtag #dadkilledit prompted the state attorney's office to demand an inquiry.

Legal proceedings are still active against Zimmerman's wife. Shellie Zimmerman faces a perjury charge for alleging lying at her husband's bail hearing last summer over the state of the couple's finances, pleading poverty soon after they raised $130,000 through donations to his online defence fund.

O'Mara has said that fighting the murder charge effectively bankrupted the couple, who have relied on friends for food and clothes for Zimmerman to wear at his trial.

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