SANFORD -- George Zimmerman was acquitted Saturday in the shooting death of Miami Gardens teenager Trayvon Martin after a wrenching five-week trial that provoked a national discussion around the thorny issues of race, profiling, self-defense laws and gun control.
The neighborhood watch captain who fatally shot Martin in the heart during a violent struggle 17 months ago, smiled slightly after a court clerk read the verdict aloud in Seminole County courtroom 5D with Zimmerman's family present. Martin's parents were not in the courtroom.
On the single count of murder in the second degree: Not guilty, the clerk of court announced. Had he been convicted, Zimmerman faced the possibility of life in prison.
After almost three weeks of testimony, more than 50 witnesses on both sides and 60 pieces evidence, the jury -- five whites, one Hispanic, mostly mothers -- deliberated for about 16 hours over two days. Though Zimmerman did not take the stand, they concluded that he rightfully defended himself when he shot the teen in a Sanford townhouse complex on February 26, 2012.
"From a legal perspective, the jury believed that George Zimmerman was justified in using deadly force, that he was in danger of great bodily harm or death in the altercation with Trayvon Martin," said David Edelstein, a Miami criminal defense attorney. "They believed he was simply responding with the force necessary to protect himself. They may also have concluded this was a tragic accident."
But for Martin's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin -- whose unyielding fight to hold their son's killer accountable became a national cause that included coast-to-coast protests and a petition with more than 2 million signatures -- the verdict was an unjust end.
Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump, who helped train the media spotlight on the case, said: "All the evidence was there to convict George Zimmerman. This family is heartbroken that the killer of their son is not going to be held accountable. It makes no sense that in 2013 you can follow and shoot an unarmed teenager walking home with nothing other than candy and a drink, and go free."
The random encounter between Zimmerman, now 29, and Martin, 17, riveted and divided the nation -- at times along both racial and political lines -- in one of the highest profile cases of last year, and left a landscape of collateral damage: the suburb in the northern shadows of Orlando became a dateline for hate and social unrest; its police chief was fired for mishandling the case; Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground Law came under scrutiny, and the circumstances of the shooting came to embody the ever-widening gap between gun control supporters and guns rights advocates.
Those few seconds of violence that led to a teenager's death also galvanized strangers across the nation with a singular message: arrest the man responsible for Martin's death. Equally passionate supporters of Zimmerman fought to restore his badly bruised name and undo allegations that painted him as a racist who hunted and killed an unarmed black teen wearing a hoodie. Contributions to an online Zimmerman's defense fund reached nearly $400,000.
The verdict is the last chapter in a saga that started with distraught parents mourning the death of their son and grew into a national movement, powered largely by social media and a chorus of civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson
Almost immediately, the case -- and for some, the verdict -- was viewed through the prickly lens of race: Zimmerman is a white Hispanic. Martin was African American.
To some, Martin's legacy will be the conversations his death has inspired about America's unsettled race history and its uneasy relationship with guns.
"This case opened the eyes of many people about a multitude of issues. It forced a conversation around Stand Your Ground, around self defense laws. There was also the discussion of what is the value of a young, black man's life," said Roland Martin, host of a new TV One cable network show and former CNN political analyst who comments regularly comments on race and social issues. "Without Trayvon Martin, you might not have seen a new generation of young folks, especially African Americans, engaged in social justice."
The violent encounter -- just seven minutes from the first phone call to police to the arrival of officers -- was set in motion that drizzling Sunday night when Zimmerman headed to Target and Trayvon returned from 7-Eleven. The teen was in Sanford with his father, riding out a 10-day suspension from Michael Krop High in North Miami-Dade after being caught with a small bag containing marijuana residue.
Zimmerman, a former criminal justice college student, called police about 7:09 p.m. and reported seeing a "suspicious" young black male not unlike others who had recently burglarized the complex. Zimmerman advised the dispatcher in the call that he was going to follow the teen. She told him that he didn't need to do that. He continued to follow the teen, somehow encountering him in a dark, open stretch of the gated townhouse community. At the time, Zimmerman was carrying a licensed 9 mm semiautomatic gun. Martin was carrying a bag of Skittles and an Arizona drink in his front hoodie pocket.
Minutes later, at about 7:17 p.m., Martin was sprawled in the grass, dying with a bullet in his chest. Zimmerman had injuries to his nose and the back of his head. Neighbors who heard and saw parts of the struggle called 911, with one call recording the desperate screams of Martin or Zimmerman, followed by the fatal gunshot.
From the moment police arrived, Zimmerman steadfastly maintained it was a case of self-defense, saying he only shot after he was attacked by Martin. "I did not shoot to take his life, I shot to save my own," Zimmerman would later post on his personal website.
Evidence and witness statements initially bore out his account, police decided. He was released from police custody that night. No charges were filed and the case was sent to local prosecutors as Martin supporters began pushing for an arrest. With the impassioned plea of the parents, the justice-for-Martin movement was launched, carried nationwide by social media, civil rights organizations, politicians, celebrities and students. Fulton and Martin launched a petition calling for the arrest of Zimmerman that generated 2.2 million signatures and inspired others to use the Internet to publicize other cases.
The arrest 44 days after the shooting -- and eventual trial -- was hailed a victory.
"All we ever asked for was for equal justice for the young man who was killed that drizzling night in Sanford, Florida. If George Zimmerman had rights, so did Trayvon Martin," music mogul Russell Simmons, founder of the Global Grind website, wrote in a Huffington Post column days before the verdict. "And that is why Mr. Zimmerman was properly arrested and charged with murder in the second degree. He will soon be judged by a jury of his peers, and that is the best we can do."
In the weeks after the shooting, complicated portraits of both Martin and Zimmerman emerged. Zimmerman was portrayed as an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, an aspiring cop who had recklessly taken the law into his own hands. His parents and supporters said Zimmerman was far from that; he was former altar boy who had mentored black children and collected clothes for the homeless.
Some of the first images of Martin that emerged were of a younger, more innocent-looking boy, making the shooting seem all the more heinous. He was described a good student with an interest in fixing or flying planes. It was later revealed that he also had run into some trouble, facing disciplinary action at school and posting profanity-laced messages on Twitter. The contrasting views of the two key figures furthered the divide.
The garment Martin wore the night of his death, a simple charcoal-colored hoodie, emerged as an unlikely symbol of solidarity as dozens of protests and marches erupted nationwide. Thousands posted, shared and tweeted photos of themselves wearing the hooded jackets, supporters as disparate as the Miami Heat players, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx. And others adopted the teen's image -- black and white portrait of him staring ahead -- as their own.
From a historic church in Atlanta to a sprawling garden square in London, from a downtown outdoor mall in Iowa City to Union Square in New York City and Bayfront Park in Miami, thousands of demonstrators protested at marches and rallies, many donning hoodies. In late March 2012 before Zimmerman's arrest, students walked out of 41 South Florida schools to protest the killing. That same day, President Barack Obama famously waded into the story noting that if he had a son, "he would look like Trayvon" -- words that fueled the race narrative and garnered scathing criticism by conservatives who said his comments were divisive.
And in Sanford, the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson led rallies and cast the community as the 21st-century version of civil rights hotspots like Selma or Birmingham.
if it did not hold Zimmerman accountable. With the speeches also came extremist threats ranging from the New Black Panther Party offering a $10,000 bounty for the capture of Zimmerman to a Detroit-based neo-Nazi group pledging to descend on Sanford to protect local white citizens from alleged racial violence. Even Gainesville Pastor Terry Jones, famous for burning a Quran, led a rally in the city.
As the controversy roared, Florida Gov. Rick Scott appointed special prosecutor Angela Corey, a Jacksonville-based state attorney to review the case. In making the decision to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder -- a first-degree felony -- Corey insisted she did not bow to growing public pressure.