A Florida jury of six women suspended its deliberations Friday as they consider the fate of George Zimmerman, who is charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
Judge Debra Nelson announced around 6 p.m. that the jury had asked to suspend deliberations for the night, and resume them at 9 a.m. Saturday. All sides excepted the proposal.
These jurors had begun their deliberations about 3 ½ hours earlier Friday, after Nelson read a lengthy list of instructions. They have three options: convict Zimmerman of second-degree murder in Trayvon Martin’s death, convict him of manslaughter or find him not guilty. The judge approved the manslaughter option on Thursday, over the defense’s vehement objection.
“All of us are depending on you to make a wise and legal decision,” Nelson told the jurors.
Just over two hours after deliberations began, the judge said that the jury requested an inventory of the evidence. Six copies of such a list were delivered to the jurors shortly after 5 p.m. The court reconvened
The deliberations cap yet another emotional day in a case that has captivated many nationwide — some feel Zimmerman did nothing wrong and killed Martin in self-defense, while others feel Zimmerman profiled the unarmed 17-year-old, ignored a 911 dispatcher’s direction not to follow him and shot him without justification. The story stirred vigorous debate about gun violence and race: Martin was black, while Zimmerman is Hispanic.
In light of the strong passion on all sides, authorities in Seminole County and elsewhere steeled for the possibility of violent reactions to the verdict.
“As Americans, we entrust our fellow citizens with a solemn duty,” Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger said moments after the jury got the case. “At times, as individuals, we may not agree with this verdict. But as communities within our country, we respect the rule of law.”
The evening of February, 26, 2012, Martin was walking back to his father’s fiancee’s house from a convenience store — where he’d bought Skittles and a drink — the hood of his sweatshirt raised as the rain fell. The Miami teen was spotted by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who called police and, at one point, got out of his car.
The now 29-year-old Zimmerman never denied shooting Martin, following an altercation between the two. The question is why.
Since opening arguments on June 24, dozens testified for both the defense and prosecution — on everything from what they heard that night, what they saw or believed happened, and whose panicked voice they think can be heard screaming on a pivotal 911 call. Both sides also presented extensive info — the gun, pictures, interviews that Zimmerman conducted and more — for the jury to consider.
Instructing the jury on Friday afternoon, Judge Nelson told the six women that Zimmerman didn’t have to prove anything. The prosecution does, however, have to convince them he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, she said. She told the jury not to use Zimmerman’s decision not to testify against him and to be cognizant of the specific charges. She told them “your memory should be your asset” — among other pieces of advice.
“It is up to you decide which evidence is reliable,” Nelson said. “You should use your common sense.”
Prosecutor: Zimmerman ‘had hate in his heart’
Assistant State Attorney Bernie de la Rionda presented the prosecution’s initial closing argument on Thursday, picking apart interviews Zimmerman had given to police and in the media.
Why would a scared man get out of his car and walk around after being told by a 911 dispatcher not to follow the victim, the prosecutor asked? Did Zimmerman walk toward Martin, or did Martin come after him — he seemingly said both? Should he have had more than a bloody nose and scratches on his head if he’d had his head slammed on the ground by the victim?
Zimmerman “always has an excuse, or they catch him in a lie,” de la Rionda said.
The prosecution got one last chance to present their case Friday. This time it was Assistant State Attorney John Guy’s turn to present a rebuttal to the defense’s own closing argument.
Guy echoed many points de la Rionda had made, characterizing Zimmerman as a frustrated wannabe police officer who took the law into his own hands. He’d decided Martin was one of the criminals who had been victimizing his neighborhood, Guy argued, then trailed him against the advice of police dispatchers and wrongly shot him to death.
“The defendant didn’t shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to,” Guy said. “He shot him because he wanted to. That’s the bottom line.”
The prosecutor argued that Zimmerman built a mountain of lies to conceal vengeful frustration and powerful determination not to allow someone he had already decided was a criminal to escape.
And, Guy contended, his under-his-breath commentary, captured on a police recording, about “f***ing punks” — apparently directed at Martin — revealed Zimmerman’s hatred and ill-will toward the teenager.
That’s important because under Florida law, a conviction on second-degree murder requires jurors to find that Zimmerman shot Martin out of “ill will, hatred, spite, or an evil intent.”
“Common sense tells you it’s the person talking like the defendant who had hate in his heart,” Guy said.
“What is that when a grown man, frustrated, angry, with hate in his heart, gets out of his car with a loaded gun and follows a child? A stranger? In the dark? And shoots him through him heart? What is that?”
It was, defense attorney Mark O’Mara argued, nothing more than self-defense.
Defense: Case against Zimmerman full of ‘what ifs’
“How many ‘coulda beens’ have you heard from the state in this case,” O’Mara asked Friday. “How many ‘what ifs’ have you heard from the state in this case? They don’t get to ask you that. No, no, no.”
“Do not give anybody the benefit of the doubt except for George Zimmerman,” the lawyer said.
O’Mara tried to discredit the prosecution’s portrayal of Zimmerman as a frustrated, spiteful vengeance-seeker. His client wasn’t the aggressor, the defense argued, contending it was Martin who stalked Zimmerman and emerged from the darkness to pounce. There, O’Mara said, the teenager pinned Zimmerman to the ground and slammed his head into the sidewalk.
The defense attorney lugged a heavy block of cement to show jurors what, he said, Zimmerman had hit.
“And that is not an unarmed teenager with nothing but Skittles trying to get home,” said O’Mara. “That was somebody who used the availability of dangerous items, from his fist to the concrete, to cause great bodily injury against George Zimmerman.”
In his rebuttal, Guy ridiculed the argument that Zimmerman had suffered substantial injuries, saying repeated blows against concrete would have caused more damage than the rivulets of blood and bumps seen in photographs from the night of the shooting.
Authorities bracing for post-verdict reaction
While this drama played out in a Sanford courtroom, authorities — in that central Florida and elsewhere around the state and the country — were bracing for what might happen after the jury makes its decision.
As the jury deliberated Friday, a few dozen protesters staked out spots outside the courthouse. Holding signs that read “Justice for Trayvon” and “Zimmerman Guilty,” they chanted, “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now.”
In the weeks after Martin’s death, tens of thousands attended rallies demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and castigating authorities for their handling of the case. Some of them wore hoodies, as did Martin the night he was killed, in support of the late teen’s family.
Zimmerman moved out of his home after receiving death threats, his father Robert had said, then stayed at an undisclosed location awaiting trial.
His defenders have been passionate as well, especially about a person’s right to defend himself with a gun when attacked. Debate swirled over Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, which allows those who believe they are in imminent danger to use deadly force to protect themselves.
Soon after the jury got the case, Zimmerman’s family released a statement urging people to accept the verdict, whatever it is.
“Though we maintain George committed no crime whatsoever, we acknowledge that the people who called for George’s arrest and subsequent trial have now witnessed both events come to pass,” the family said. “We hope now that as Americans we will all respect the rule of law, which begins with respecting the verdict. The judicial system has run its course — pray for justice, pray for peace, pray for our country.”
Authorities similarly appealed for calm Friday — and also took steps in case some did not heed those appeals.
The sheriff’s office in Broward County, in the Miami area, said it had made a contingency plan to respond to incidents, and was spreading the word to remain calm through a public service announcement.
“Freedom of expression is a constitutional right,” the sheriff’s office said. “While raising your voice is encouraged, using your hands is not.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr., a prominent civil rights leader, was among those who urged people not to react with violence.
“If Zimmerman is convicted there should not be inappropriate celebrations, because a young man lost his life, and if he is not convicted we should avoid violence because it will only lead to more tragedies,” Jackson said.
But O’Mara, for one, said that whatever the outcome, his client will not feel safe.
“There are a percentage of the population who are angry, they’re upset, and they may well take it out on him,” he said.