George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who triggered a national debate about race after shooting an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin, was found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges Saturday night.
The verdict puts an end to a trial that dominated news headlines and was carried live on most of the cable news networks.
“George Zimmerman was never guilty of anything except protecting himself in self defense,” said Mark O’Mara, Zimmerman’s defense attorney, after the verdict.
Zimmerman “would’ve never been charged with a crime” if he were black, O'Mara said.
“I think the prosecution of George Zimmerman was disgraceful. I am gratified by the jury’s verdict,” defense attorney Don West told reporters, adding that the jury prevented a “tragedy from becoming a travesty.”
Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin became a major political story in 2012 in the early stages of the presidential race.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) also came to the floor wearing a hoodie similar to the one Martin was wearing when he was killed.
“Racial profiling has to stop,” Rush said. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”
He and other Democrats argued Martin’s death showed that too many people see black men as a threat, and they argued Florida’s “stand your ground” law should be overturned.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) opened an investigation into the handling of the case, and in mid-April a special prosecutor appointed by the state of Florida charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
President Obama even waded into the controversy, promising a full investigation into the killing and saying that, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense after being attacked, but waived a defense under the stand your ground law, which permits the use of deadly force in some cases. Martin was unarmed at the time of the shooting.
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey said during a press conference following the verdict that the justifiable use of deadly force is one of the more difficult issues in prosecutions.
“When a citizen does a shooting and it’s not in the commission of a felony ... those are a lot more difficult and we have to look at those very carefully,” she said.
“I respect the jury’s verdict ... but I am disappointed,” Assistant State Attorney John Guy said. “I thought he was guilty.”
Zimmerman, whose mother is Hispanic and whose father is white, saw Martin walking through a gated Sanford, Fla., neighborhood and suspected he was an intruder. He then followed him from a convenience store to the home of Martin’s father's fiancée — after an emergency dispatcher told him not to do so.
The defense argued that Zimmerman shot Martin after the teen punched him in the nose and smashed his head into the pavement — an account corroborated by experts and witnesses in the trial. The prosecution said Zimmerman unnecessarily provoked the confrontation.
Zimmerman was questioned but not arrested until a month later, leading to an outcry from Martin's family, black community leaders and some Democrats on Capitol Hill.
During the trial, comments by political Washington on the proceedings were rare. Members did not rush to the House floor to discuss it, and the White House got its first question at a press briefing on July 11.
—This report was updated at 10:57 p.m.