A US jury acquits George Zimmerman over shooting dead unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, setting free a man who became a polarising symbol in the national debate on race and gun law.
The case divided the United States: a young black man shot dead by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who pleaded self defence.
And the verdict, delivered on Saturday by a jury in Florida, is unlikely to be the end of the debate.
A panel of six women deliberated for more than 15 hours over two days before delivering their decision – George Zimmerman, not guilty of the murder or the manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. The decision drew immediate condemnation from some civil rights groups.
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Mr Zimmerman himself showed little emotion as the verdict was delivered, other than a slight smile of relief. His parents embraced and his wife was tearful.
His attorney Don West said: “I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful. As happy as I am for George Zimmerman, I’m thrilled that this jury kept this tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
I know this case has elicited strong passions. But I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. Barack Obama
But outside the courthouse, the verdict drew angry protests from some of the dozens of protestors who had gathered in support of Martin’s family.
“People were crying. It showed the justice system does not have their backs,” said Jared Hamil, 25, a Tampa warehouse worker.
In a carefully worded statement, US President Barack Obama – who had previously said that if he had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon – tried to bridge the divide in the United States and asked instead for the nation to focus on how to prevent tragedies like this happening again.
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America,” President Obama said.
“I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken.
“I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.”
Martin’s parents were not in the court during the reading of the verdict. But his father, Tracy Martin, later tweeted that his son would have been proud of the fight put up for him.
Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY
— Tracy Martin (@BTraymartin9) July 14, 2013
Mr Zimmerman, 29, said Martin, 17, attacked him on the night of 26 February 2012 in the Florida town of Sanford. Mr Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, said he reacted out of self-defence.
However, prosecutors said the neighbourhood watch volunteer was a “wannabe cop” who tracked down the unarmed black teenager and shot him without justification.
“Today, justice failed Trayvon Martin and his family,” said Roslyn Brock, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“We call immediately for the Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the civil rights violations committed against Trayvon Martin. This case has re-energised the movement to end racial profiling in the United States.”
In my view the American legal system has once again failed justice. #ZimmermanTrial
— Rev Jesse Jackson Sr (@RevJJackson) July 14, 2013
Zimmerman’s case acquired national significance after police failed to arrest him for six weeks after the shooting in 2012, believing his assertion that it was self-defence.
The delays caused protests and cries of injustice across the United States. Sandford’s police chief was forced to resign and the US Justice department scrutinised the case.
In the wake of the decision, Martin’s supporters called for calm and unity despite their disappointment. Benjamin Crump, a Florida lawyer representing Martin’s family, said he hoped the public reaction to the verdict would be peaceful. But he did not conceal his sense of injustice over the trial’s outcome.
“The whole world was looking at this case for a reason, and what people wanted to see, as we all said, was how far we had come in America in matters of equal justice,” said Crump.
“We have to have very responsible conversations about how we get better as a country and move forward from this tragedy and learn from it.”