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 nation.
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 reexamination of race relations in this 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. Others jammed into the small courtroom, lining up each morning for the coveted 24 seats allotted to the public.
Zimmerman, 29, watched with an unshakably neutral expression, sitting in his customary position at the defense table in ill-fitting blazers that an older friend bought for him to wear at the trial on sale at Men’s Wearhouse. Once, he’d dreamed of becoming a policeman or a prosecutor, and at times, he seemed to be observing the proceedings with the detachment of a moderately engaged student. Only at breaks — when the jury had left the courtroom — did he sometimes let his blank stare crack a bit. He would circle the defense table giving congratulatory handshakes to his attorneys before being escorted by a bodyguard and court security officers to a waiting room down the hall.
Behind Zimmerman, on the opposite side of the courtroom, sat Martin’s parents — Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. The father, who Martin was visiting in Sanford on the night of his death, watched stoically, his emotions measured best by the slowing or accelerating speed of his jaw muscles as he grinded through packs of gum.