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Zimmerman murder case goes to jury

SANFORD, Fla. — Lawyers prosecuting and defending George Zimmerman painted vastly different pictures in their closing arguments Friday of the man at the center of the country’s most-watched murder trial.

In final addresses before the jury began its deliberations, the 29-year-old Zimmerman, was alternately portrayed as an innocent man defending himself and as a lying killer who attacked a child.

The jury of six women began deliberating about 2:30 p.m. and went on for about 3 1/2 hours before breaking for the night. Protesters were gathering outside the central Florida courthouse as jurors announced they would resume their deliberations at 9 a.m. Saturday.

At times Friday, some on the jury appeared disturbed by the lawyers’ summations, frowning and grimacing as autopsy photographs of the teenage victim were displayed.

Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder in connection with the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in the gated community of the Retreat at Twin Lakes, where the teenager was visiting his father’s fiancee. Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson also allowed the jury to consider an alternative charge of manslaughter.

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Zimmerman appeared stoic Friday, his family seated in the second row behind him, staring ahead. Across the aisle, Martin’s parents sat with relatives, also focused on the front of the courtroom. When a defense lawyer showed a photo of the teenager’s body, Martin’s mother briefly left the courtroom without betraying any emotion, returning moments later just as composed.

Zimmerman’s attorney argued that despite inconsistencies in statements to investigators, his client was no “crazy cop wannabe” who profiled, stalked and murdered Martin. Zimmerman was defending himself and his neighborhood, attorney Mark O’Mara said.

“Go back to that room and look at that definition of self-defense, and if you think George Zimmerman acted in self-defense, then you’re done,” O’Mara said.

The defense attorney spoke for more than three hours, often informally, using a variety of props including charts, posters, cardboard cutouts, a slab of concrete and even an animated version of the incident that he said showed Zimmerman being attacked by the teen.

In his rebuttal, Assistant State Atty. John Guy dismissed the animation as “a cartoon,” contending that Zimmerman lied about the shooting and tried to justify an attack on an unarmed teen whom Guy described as a “child.”

“Isn’t that every child’s worst nightmare: being followed on the street by a stranger?” Guy said, displaying Martin’s last words on an overhead screen — “What are you following me for?” — along with a list of Zimmerman’s alleged lies.

He painted Zimmerman as a neighborhood vigilante, a “Mr. Stay Puft, Mr. Softee,” who “had hate in his heart.”

“That child had every right to be where he was, to do what he was doing,” Guy said, his voice rising, then dropping to a whisper in the silent courtroom.

“The defendant didn’t shoot Trayvon Martin because he had to,” Guy said. “He shot him because he wanted to.”

The prosecutor said the murder case wasn’t about self-defense or race.

“It’s about right and wrong,” Guy said.

But in a state and country where race has long influenced the workings of the justice system, the Zimmerman case has remained a lightning rod for racial tension.

As jurors began deliberating, about 20 protesters gathered outside the courthouse with bullhorns and handmade signs proclaiming “Justice 4 Trayvon,” “No justice, no peace” and “If you white & wanna get away with murder, come to Fla.!”

Soon after, Robert Zimmerman Jr., the defendant’s brother, released a family statement urging people to accept the verdict.

“Our family has been clear to express our trust in the judicial system,” the statement reads. “As we await a verdict we will remain hopeful and ask for the public to remain peaceful, no matter the outcome. 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. We hope now that as Americans we will all respect the rule of law.”

The Martin family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, said family members struggled to remain composed in court Friday, with the closing arguments at times “emotionally overwhelming.”

“They don’t want their son’s death to be in vain. They don’t want him to walk free,” Crump said of Zimmerman.

In the courthouse, Seminole County Sheriff Donald Eslinger, who is white, stood beside the new Sanford Police chief, Cecil Smith, who is black, and called for calm. Officials in at least one other nearby Florida county announced they had made public service announcements urging calm and contingency plans once the verdict was announced.

“The lives of two families have forever been altered, and our hearts and prayers go out to both,” Eslinger said, noting that local authorities “want to ensure the proceedings are carried out without interruption.”

As sheriff’s deputies gathered near the front of the criminal justice center, the sheriff appeared to be addressing an unspoken fear: that a verdict could bring rioting to a town where he said black and white residents have lived together in peace throughout the trial.

“We may not agree with this verdict, but as communities within this country, we respect the rule of law,” he said. “While this case has brought a great deal of emotion, there’s no tension in Seminole County.”

After Martin’s shooting, Smith noted, the U.S. Justice Department launched an inquiry, the Police Department was overhauled and its chief, who is white, replaced.

“It’s a trying time for all of us,” he said.

Outside, Lillian Cintron, 27, of Sanford chanted and hoisted one of the handmade signs, hoping the jury votes to convict Zimmerman of either murder or manslaughter.

“I wouldn’t be satisfied with him walking away not guilty,” Cintron said as a member of the New Black Panther Party from Jacksonville, Fla., shouted beside her: “It’s murder, not manslaughter!”

A white couple watched from a nearby metal barricade. Jim and Tara Ehlers of Greenville, S.C., stopped in Sanford on their way home from vacation “to support George,” Jim Ehlers said.

Ehlers, 48, a contractor, said that like many others across the country, he had watched almost every day of the trial on television. He evaluated the evidence and sided with the defense.

“If they want change, they need to change the law,” he said of those pushing for a conviction.

Both said they wished the case had not focused so much outside the courtroom on race and said they hoped the jury would return a verdict soon.

“The longer it’s dragged out,” Tara Ehlers, 42, said, “the more tense it will be.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com


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