SANFORD, Florida: Cleared by a Florida jury, George Zimmerman walked free from criminal charges in the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, but was under fire from civil rights leaders and critics who were dismayed by the verdict.
The six women jurors who deliberated for 16 hours over two days found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter Saturday night in a case that has polarized the U.S. public.
Debates about racial profiling, guns, self-defense laws and the equality of justice that arose from the 2012 shooting continued the morning after the verdict.
“I remain stunned at the decision,” civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said on CNN Sunday. “The [U.S.] Department of Justice must intervene to take this to another level.”
Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Sunday he had spoken to senior Justice officials about pursuing federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
“When you look at comments made by young black men who lived in that neighborhood about how they felt especially targeted by [Zimmerman], there is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon,” Jealous told CNN.
The jurors were sequestered during the three weeks of testimony and remained anonymous by court order. They declined to speak to reporters after the verdict.
Defense lawyers had argued that Martin, 17, attacked Zimmerman on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Prosecutors had to prove that Zimmerman committed a crime in pursuing Martin and that he did not act in self-defense.
The court unshackled Zimmerman, who had received death threats, from an electronic monitoring device he had been wearing while on bail. He now faces a possible civil wrongful death lawsuit from Martin’s family.
The tense drama that had been building for 16 months climaxed with the late-night reading of the verdict when a court clerk said “not guilty.”
Zimmerman, 29, showed no emotion at first, but later broke into a smile.
Outrage over the case was triggered by the refusal of the police department in the central Florida town to arrest Zimmerman after the shooting, believing his story that he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin.
Protests began in Sanford and soon spread around the country, creating pressure that forced the Sanford police chief to step down and led Florida’s governor to appoint a special prosecutor, who brought a second-degree murder charge 45 days after the shooting.
Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, spotted Martin from his car inside the gated community where he was a neighborhood watch coordinator and called police, believing Martin to be suspicious. The teenager was staying in the neighborhood, the houseguest of his father’s fiancee.
Minutes later, after Zimmerman got out of his car, the two engaged in a fight that left Zimmerman with a bloody nose and head injuries. The encounter ended when Zimmerman shot Martin once through the heart with a 9mm pistol.
Some critics said special prosecutor Angela Corey overcharged the case by alleging second-degree murder, saying the lesser charge of manslaughter was more appropriate.
The acquittal will weaken any wrongful death civil lawsuit that Martin’s family might bring. Such a case would have a lower burden of proof and Zimmerman, who opted against taking the witness stand in his criminal trial, might be forced to testify.
“We will seek and get immunity in a civil hearing,” said Zimmerman’s lead defense lawyer, Mark O’Mara.
Civil rights leader Al Sharpton called the verdict “a slap in the face to the American people” and urged federal action. He cited the example of Rodney King, the man whose videotaped beating by Los Angeles police triggered rioting two decades ago after a state criminal trial found the police officers not guilty. Later, the Justice Department prosecuted some of the officers in a federal civil case.
Demonstrators outside the Seminole County Courthouse where the trial was held chanted, “No justice, no peace,” before and after the verdict, and the activist group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism called demonstrations Sunday in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other cities.