Saturday, June 23, 2018

Bail is set for George Zimmerman after he tells Trayvon Martin's parents he is sorry for their loss

SANFORD — George Zimmerman surprised a packed courtroom Friday when he took the witness stand during his bail hearing to tell Trayvon Martin's parents he was sorry for the loss of their 17-year-old son.

Clean-shaven, handcuffed and wearing a charcoal suit, gray tie and shackles, the volunteer neighborhood watch captain faced Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin for the first time since he shot their son to death in a Feb. 26 encounter that set off a national debate about race, racial profiling and Florida's ''stand your ground'' law.

"I am sorry for the loss of your son. I did not know how old he was," Zimmerman said about two hours into the hearing. "I thought he was a little bit younger than I am. And I did not know if he was armed or not."

As Zimmerman spoke in a soft, even voice, Martin's parents, sitting in the second row, remained expressionless. Fulton, who had publicly asked for an apology, looked away.

When a prosecutor asked him why he had waited so long to express his condolences to the family of the Miami Gardens teen, he responded, "I was told not to communicate with them."

Later, the family's lawyer, Benjamin Crump, called the statement "a self-serving apology" designed to win Zimmerman release from jail until his trial on the second-degree murder charge.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Seminole County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. granted the $150,000 bail — generally considered a reasonable amount by Florida standards — along with a set of restrictions for Zimmerman. Under the conditions, Zimmerman must wear an electronic tracking device, although he may be allowed to leave the state.

He cannot have any contact with Martin's family, carry firearms or consume alcohol or illegal drugs. He must abide by a curfew between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m. and check in with authorities every three days. He surrendered his passport at the beginning of Friday's hearing.

Zimmerman's attorney, Mark O'Mara, said it would be several days before his client, who is indigent, is released because Zimmerman needs time to come up with bail money. O'Mara also needs time to work out the details of the electronic tracking device. Zimmerman's release date and location while he awaits the trial will remain secret because of threats made against him, O'Mara acknowledged.

Zimmerman, 28, fatally shot the teenager in a gated townhouse community in Sanford. Martin, who was on a 10-day suspension from his Miami-Dade high school, was spending time with his father and the father's girlfriend at her home at the time of the shooting.

As Trayvon walked back to the home from a convenience store, Zimmerman spotted him. He told police the teen looked suspicious and followed him. Minutes later, they had a physical altercation and Zimmerman shot Martin. Zimmerman was not initially charged by Sanford police, who cited the state's "stand your ground" law. That lack of arrest fueled rallies and protests across the nation.

Charged last week, he faces a possible life sentence. Zimmerman has said he was acting in self-defense.

Just before the bail hearing ended, Martin's parents rushed out of the fifth-floor courtroom, visibly angered by the judge's bail ruling and the surprise apology.

"They are devastated, completely devastated," Crump said.

O'Mara successfully argued for bail for his client by challenging the facts, evidence and language in the probable cause affidavit. He grilled a state attorney's investigator, Dale Gilbreath, who admitted that the state does not have evidence to indicate who actually started the fight. O'Mara painted Martin as the aggressor and said Zimmerman told police that the teen put his hand over Zimmerman's nose and mouth so he could not breathe during the confrontation.

Zimmerman's wife and parents, testifying by phone for safety reasons, portrayed him as an honest man and a mentor who dreamed of becoming a judge or magistrate. They said he was peaceful and had a soft spot for children and the homeless.

"I have never known him to be violent unless he was provoked, and then he would turn the other cheek," said his father, Robert Zimmerman, a retired magistrate who has lived in Central Florida the last five years.

Robert Zimmerman had testified that he is a disabled veteran and his wife is retired. They own a home with a mortgage but have little in savings.

Assistant State Attorney Bernardo de la Rionda, who handled the hearing for special prosecutor Angela Corey, asked for a $1 million bond — or none at all.

Minutes before Lester ruled on the bail motion, Zimmerman took the stand, his stride slowed by shackles at his feet and waist. When he began to express his condolences, there were gasps in the courtroom and Tracy Martin began to cry.

O'Mara said Zimmerman's words were sincere.

The judge also announced Friday that court records in the case will likely be unsealed soon. Several news agencies, including the Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald, are challenging an earlier ruling in the case sealing the records. Lester said the records would be made available to the public with any sensitive information redacted. He said a hearing will be held Friday if additional details needed to be worked out.

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