SANFORD, FLORIDA – A Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter Saturday night in a case that alternately fascinated and appalled large segments of a spellbound America.
The saga of Zimmerman’s shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager named Trayvon Martin whittled into the American vernacular, transforming “hoodie” sweatshirts into cultural markers, and provoking a painful re-examination of race relations in the country. Even the racial and ethnic identity of Zimmerman — he has a white father and a Hispanic mother — demanded a reordering of conventional paradigms. He was frequently referred to as a “white Hispanic,” a term that, for some, reflected a newly blended America and, for others, felt like an uncomfortable middle ground.
Attorneys fought over Zimmerman’s fate in a heavily guarded and windowless fifth-floor courtroom, calling more than 50 witnesses during three weeks of testimony before a sequestered six-woman jury. Afternoon thunderstorms sometimes shook the building, but the participants could see nary a drop of rain as they relived the night in February 2012 when Zimmerman killed Martin after spotting the 17-year-old walking through his gated community in the rain.
A parallel trial seemed to be taking place outside that cloistered space, with running debate on cable television and the Internet spurred by live-streaming coverage of the trial that effectively turned millions of Americans into quasi-jurors armed with every minute detail of the case.
For all the talk of race outside the courtroom, its role inside the trial was muted — more subtext than central theme. Debra Steinberg Nelson, the judge overseeing the case, ruled that prosecutors could say Zimmerman “profiled” Martin, but could not say he “racially profiled” the teen.
Nelson ruled that jurors would not be allowed to see text messages found on Martin’s cellphone about fighting and guns because they could not be authenticated. “Why you always fighting?” a message from one of Martin’s friend’s said, according to a defense expert. The prosecution had been eager to introduce the texts to further the defense claim that Martin was the aggressor in the fight and that Zimmerman — who a gym owner described as “soft” and unathletic — was overpowered by the tall and slender teenager.
Zimmerman’s defense attorneys, Mark O’Mara and Don West, succeeded in turning many of the state’s key witnesses into assets for the defense. They got John Good, a neighbor, to testify that he saw a figure in dark clothes (Martin’s hoodie was dark) straddling another person and doing a mixed martial arts-style “ground and pound” while “raining down blows.”
In their best moments, prosecutors were able to highlight inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s accounts of the shooting and build a narrative about him as “a wannabe cop” who shot Martin “because he wanted to know, not because he needed to.” They had much to work with — police conducted taped interviews with Zimmerman and recorded a re-enactment — all without Zimmerman requesting an attorney. Prosecutor John Guy said it would have been a “physical impossibility” for Zimmerman to have reached behind his back for his concealed and holstered 9mm handgun if he was lying on the ground with Martin on top of him.
The charges against Zimmerman were serious. Second-degree murder carries a maximum sentenced of life in prison in Florida and a minimum of 25 years because it was committed with a handgun; defendants convicted of manslaughter can be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.